With the growing threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in Africa and shifting alliances in the region with the Arab Gulf states and Egypt, it is in the best interest of the incoming US administration to reassess engagement with Eritrea, a country which could play a significant strategic role in countering conflict and extremism, an expert on African politics said at the Atlantic Council on December 8.

According to Dan Connell, a visiting scholar from Boston University’s African Studies Center, “there’s a lot of reasons that if [the situation in Eritrea] is left unattended, it’s not going to stay the same, it’s going to get worse.” He added, “for a dealmaker, this is not a hard deal to make,” referring to US President-elect Donald Trump.

While US relations with Eritrea are “not on the top ten list” for the Trump administration, said Seth Kaplan, a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, he claimed that addressing instability and the threat of conflict in the Horn of Africa is a way to make a positive change, in the best interest of the United States, without taking an excessive diplomatic risk.

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Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow on the challenge
posed by Russia

When someone with the long-range perspective of Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow says relations with Russia are the worst he's seen in his entire career, everyone should take notice. In this week's "Channeling Brussels," Vershbow calls 2014, with Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region, a "watershed year" for him—and not in a good way.

Vershbow has been a student of the Soviet Union and Russia for many decades, rising to the highest levels of the US State Department, the Pentagon and NATO.  Before his recently-ended tenure as NATO's deputy secretary general, Vershbow had served as the American ambassador to the Alliance from 1998 to 2001 and to Moscow from 2001 to 2005.  With all that Russia-watching history, Vershbow says he'd have to go back to the Berlin crises of the early 1960s to imagine "as volatile and unpredictable and dangerous a situation as we have now."

Back then, things were certainly testy and uncomfortable but at least, he says, "there was a certain acceptance of some basic rules of the game and that applied most of all to Europe."  But today, he says regretfully, "we don't have those rules being observed by Russia anymore."

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Though Africa did not feature prominently in the US presidential campaign, the continent must be a key foreign policy consideration for the incoming administration not only due to its strategic, economic, security, and geopolitical significance, but also in light of competition from other aspiring partners, the former commander of the US Africa Command said at the Atlantic Council on December 6.

According to retired Gen. Carter Ham, “Africa is a place where a relatively modest investment of resources and interests can yield some disproportionate positive outcomes.” However, he added, “missed opportunities will cede advantage to others, or they may result in the United States engaging in a far more costly manner further down the road.”

Citing US competition with China, Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs at the Department of Defense, said, “if the United States doesn’t pay much attention to Africa… I can absolutely see not just China but other countries moving in to fill the void.”

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Exemplified by his extraordinary phone conversation with the leader of Taiwan and his tweets criticizing China, US President-elect Donald Trump’s undefined stance on Asia has created uncertainty and anxiety throughout the region.

“The United States is a very important strategic and economic partner,” consequently, countries throughout the region are “anxious to find out what the new administration is going to do…and anxious to work with the new administration,” said Meredith Miller, vice president of Albright Stonebridge Group.

On December 2, Trump spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, in what the Washington Post reported was “a breach of protocol that could disrupt US-China ties before the inauguration.” The call was the first by a US president-elect or president since Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from China to Taiwan in 1979. Since 1979, US-China relations have been governed by the “one-China” policy under which the United States acknowledges Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of China.

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On October 16, just hours before Montenegrins were due to head to the polls, the government made an alarming announcement. It claimed security services had foiled a Russian nationalist attempt to seize control of the parliament and assassinate Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (who has since resigned).

The Kremlin undoubtedly has an axe to grind with the Montenegrin leader. Djukanovic’s support for economic sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, and his determination to take his country into NATO, have not won him any friends in Moscow. But politics in the Balkans is rarely a straightforward affair.

As critics were quick to point out, the alleged assassination plot came at a convenient moment for Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists, who had been under pressure from anti-government demonstrators in the build-up to the election. Or as the Democratic Front, Montenegro’s main pro-Russian opposition party, put it, the incident was “a cheap, staged and performed vaudeville coup” aimed at scaring voters into maintaining the status quo.

While the claim that a prime minister staged a coup to win an election may seem outlandish, investigative journalists and opposition parties have long accused him of corruption, including vote-rigging, and having ties to organized crime. Djukanovic, who has ruled the country for most of the last two and half decades, was awarded the dubious title of ‘2015 Man of the Year in Organized Crime’ by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Nearly two months on, details of the alleged coup plot remain murky.

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It has been more than two years since the European Union and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. How effective have the sanctions been?

According to US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in 2016, sanctions were meant to “press Moscow to bring an end to the violence in Ukraine and fully implement its commitments under the Minsk [ceasefire] agreements.”

By that standard, they have failed. The situation in eastern Ukraine today is one of low-intensity warfare rather than a ceasefire. The far-reaching sectoral sanctions that were imposed after the Kremlin’s actions in eastern Ukraine, which targeted key Russian industries, businesses, and banks, failed to get Moscow to hold up its side of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement.

Still, there are intermediate goals, not simply full compliance, to consider: to contain Russia’s adventurism and to craft a cautionary tale in which Russia pays a high price for, and the West takes a principled stand against the Kremlin’s violation of international law and its neighbor’s sovereignty. By these measures, the medicine may be working.

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The victory of the “no” vote in the Italian referendum is not simply a rejection of reform, but will result in a significant loss of leadership on the European stage with the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, according to Andrea Montanino, director of the Global Business and Economics Program at the Atlantic Council.

Montanino, a former career officer in the Italian Ministry of Finance, said that “the biggest problem in Europe now is the lack of leadership, the lack of someone to give a vision of what to do next.”

On December 4, Italians voted down a referendum designed to reform and streamline the processes of government. Renzi, who had said he would resign if the “yes” vote is defeated, handed in his resignation to Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

In Renzi’s absence, compounded by French President François Hollande’s decision to not to seek a second term in office and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to run for a fourth term, “the risk for the future of Europe, to me, is that you will have leaders… that are not able to find a common view,” Montanino said. Additionally, it will be hard for the United States to find a partner in an increasingly insular Europe, he added.

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France occupies a unique geopolitical position and can positively influence Europe’s trajectory, but first it must undertake significant domestic reforms, Jérémie Gallon, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, said in a Facebook Live discussion on December 6.

Gallon joined Jeffrey Lightfoot, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security, to discuss their forthcoming publication, Spotlight France: Europe’s Swing State.

In the report, both authors argue that “what happens in France matters across Europe and it matters around the world.” Lightfoot and Gallon agreed that the future France decides to pursue, a pressing concern in light of upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in May and June of 2017, respectively, will set the tone for the rest of Europe with regard to rising populism, economic reform, and the integration of Muslim populations into European society.

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The transatlantic economic relationship, defined by mutual investment and international cooperation, is fundamental to the well-being of citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, said in a Facebook Live discussion on December 6.

O’Sullivan joined Anthony Gardner, the US ambassador to the European Union (EU), to discuss the importance of free trade and mutual investment across the Atlantic, as well as address the challenges facing continued economic interaction between the United States and Europe. They were interviewed by Marie Kasperek, associate director in the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program.

O’Sullivan emphasized the need to make the transatlantic relationship, particularly the benefits of free trade and globalization, relevant and accessible to populations who no longer understand the significance of the system.

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US representative to the OSCE, Daniel B. Baer, responds to European call for arms control talks with Moscow

The United States shares European concerns about the erosion of Russian compliance with international treaties, but “it is not self-evident that the way forward is new commitments,” as has been proposed by the foreign ministers of fourteen European nations, said Daniel B. Baer, the US representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Baer said that the United States favors a dialogue at the level of all fifty-seven OSCE member states, including Russia. “In such a dialogue, we would expect to talk about threat perceptions and emerging challenges, and then, once we have done a stocktaking, figure out what is the most appropriate way to move forward,” he said.

The fact that Russia has withdrawn from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which led to the destruction of heavy weapons systems in Europe, is just one example of the erosion of Moscow’s international commitments. Russia has also violated by the terms of the Minsk Protocol, which seeks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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