Chinese Foreign Policy – On Climate Change and Fortuitous Gains


By Alexander Johannes, 2nd year Maths with Economics student at University College London who has completed a course in Chinese Foreign Policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong this summer.

During an address at the United Nations (UN) headquarters on March 29th 2018, Secretary-General Antònio Guterres stated what it generally regarded as a universal truth, “Climate change is still moving much faster than we are…[it is] the greatest threat facing humankind”. This article will analyse the global effort to address climate change by contextualising the contemporary efforts and institutions created to deal with this threat, followed by the recent developments, challenges and opportunities that exist with regard to climate change and the rise of China.[1]

Global warming, environmental degradation and unsustainable development/practices, referred to broadly as climate change, have become a focal point of international discourse and policy, with significant implications for individual states and the power dynamics that pervade global initiatives.[2] Given its population size, urbanisation and the industrial nature of its economy, China is one of the key states that will ultimately determine the success of measures taken to combat climate change.[3]  The sudden and unexpected departure of the United States (US) from The Paris Agreement has not only shifted a larger spotlight on the Chinese role, but also presents a unique opportunity for China to take an uncontested leading role in the matter.[4] However, this largely contradicts the pressing need for China to continue industrialisation and development, specifically in the poorest inland provinces, which continue to lag behind the Eastern coastal regions.[5]

China’s involvement and responses have evolved and developed as climate change has gained prominence as a global issue. Indeed, Chinese leadership throughout the mid-to-late 1990s placed more emphasis than its predecessors had on the issue.[6] This followed the global convergence to the idea of sustainable development, which would ultimately be articulated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – of which goal 13 deals directly with climate change. However, the rapid economic growth experienced by China in the early part of the 21st century was often in direct conflict with the stated intentions of the Chinese government. Domestic and international pressure culminated in 2007 and 2008, forcing the government to implement more proactive and concrete measures.[7]  Thus, the rise of China during this period was not significantly impeded by enforceable international legislation that constrained growth, placing China in the unique position of being considered a developing nation for the purposes of international agreements, with the added advantage of having undergone some form of robust economic transformation.[8]  By the same token, China now occupies what could loosely be described as a bridge between the developed and developing world, giving it greater political leverage.[9]  Therefore, as the global tide towards sustainability continued to swell towards the latter part of the 2000s, China was well placed both politically and economically as the issue of climate change came to the fore.

Thus, the aforementioned factors combined with Xi Jinping’s greater emphasis on activism in foreign affairs created a dynamic political landscape for the issue of climate change to unfold.[10] In particular, the willingness to engage with the international community on the issue, specifically the US under the Obama administration, lead to the much-lauded Paris Agreement of 2015. The agreement sets out an extensive, collective response to combat climate in a tangible way, something its predecessors, such as the Kyoto protocol of 1997, were unable to achieve.[11]

However, the unprecedented reorganisation of the American political establishment and the election of Donald Trump provided new practical challenges but political opportunities for the Chinese government. As the largest economy and contributor to global emissions left in the agreement subsequent to the US’ withdrawal, eyes firmly shifted to the Beijing. In response, Xi Jinping took a conservative stance by framing China as a “torchbearer” (yinlingzhe) rather than an outright leader.[12]

Therefore, it remains to analyse the empirical evidence regarding Chinese attempts to fight climate change. The World Bank estimates that renewable electricity output as a percentage of total electricity output has increased from approximately 15% in 2003 to 24% in 2015. Although by no means generalisable, this does provide a brief illustration of some of the tangible strides being made by the Chinese government to implement sustainable development strategies. Furthermore, China’s National Climate Change Programme China (CNCCP) has reinforced this commitment.[13]  Thus, beyond the rhetoric that characterises national successes, there are concrete steps being taken that necessarily position China as a potential leader in addressing climate change.

Finally, there are a number of key considerations that fall beyond the scope of practical leadership, and address what the Chinese government also stands to gain by assuming this leadership role. The contrast between what could be perceived as a progressive and cooperative Chinese state opposing a rigid, self-serving American establishment effectively invalidates any narrative of benign Western Liberalism and malignant Chinese Authoritarianism. In addition, the gains to be made diplomatically between China and the EU as they collaborate as the major partners in the Paris Agreement could have positive network effects. In the same way, the US has essentially abandoned the relevant moral leadership position, which will also impact its diplomatic ties.[14]  The role will also allow China to aid developing nations through the South-to-south cooperation fund[15], deepening their relationship and mutual understanding, thereby cementing China’s position as responsible power embedded in the philosophy of Tianxia  and in line with Xi Jinping’s more assertive narrative of China.[16]

However, China’s approach to foreign affairs reflects a circumscribe willingness, and in some cases outright reluctance, to bear the costs of regional and international leadership.[17] Taking those considerations into account,the Chinese government has already taken a leading role in alliances such as the G77 and BRICS, and by implication, this represents the ideal opportunity to expand this role.[18]

As much as Climate change is a complex issue, so too are the options and considerations of the Chinese government. Xi Jinping’s more progressive approach to international diplomacy places China in a strong position to deal with regional and international partners, but the added complexities of internal development and stability balanced against the opportunity to lead one of the most ambitious and vital global efforts opens the door to a multiplicity of competing interests. However, the American absence and unique factors that prevail mesh into a delicate but enticing combination of timing and positioning in a tumultuous global political arena.



[1] Refers to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including all special administrative regions.

[2] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[3] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[4] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

[5] The Economist. 2016. Rich province, poor province: The government is struggling to spread wealth more evenly [online]. Available from: [Accessed 11 July 2018]

[6] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[7] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[8] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[9] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[10] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[11] Worland, J. 2017. How China Could Shape the Future of Energy [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[12] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

[13]Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[14] Lewis, J. 2007. China’s Strategic Priorities in International Climate Change Negotiations [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[15] United Nations. 2018. China’s National Climate Change Programme [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[16]Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[17] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[18] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

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Romania’s 100: new waves of patriotism and confessional grandeur


by Diana Ecaterina Borcea, final year King’s College London War Studies undergraduate and Europe Editor at International Relations Today.

The 27th of March, the 15th of November and last but not least, the 1st of December 1918 marked three of the greatest milestones in the history of the Romanian state.[i] The Great Union was finally accomplished through the more than admirable works and efforts of the leaderships of Basarabia, Northern Bucovina and Transylvania, alongside the great support and militancy that came from the political elite of the Old Kingdom to rightfully bring together the nation’s estranged lands. Names such as I. I. C. Bratianu, Alexandru Vaida Voievod, Take Ionescu, Nicolae Titulescu, Traian Vuia, Ion Pillat, Mihai Șerbu, Voicu Nițescu, Nicolae Titulescu and Octavian Goga have a deep resonance within the work of the unified Romania and they will forever be worth commemorating.

The present centenarian approach, however, revealed a reality Romania almost always confronted itself with: the burden of an ignorant majority under more than questionable leading elements. As it reached its 100th year since the unification, the country saw a major movement towards the ‘values’ of the Romanian peoples, which often come hand in hand with the notions of solidarity, righteousness, traditionalism and orthodoxy. The latter one was given the chance to outshine the rest, as the Romanian Orthodox Church inaugurated the outstanding symbolic Cathedral of the Salvation of the People. Going beyond the religiosity of the moment, the building is meant to represent the ‘greatest accomplishment of the Romanians over the last century’, as it comes with deeply historically rooted meanings: the Great Union of 1918. Therefore, this paper is meant to analyse the majoritarian understanding of the Romanian centenary phenomenon.

While the outspokenly patriotic theory behind the Cathedral project seems to greatly satisfy an average capacity of comprehension, there are several underlying issues with it. One of the most significant is the reason why so many Romanians believed in such theory in the first place. Objectively, this economically and culturally unnecessary task the state and Church have set for themselves – building such an expensive and inadequately huge cathedral – was estimated to cost over 400 million euros[ii], much of which comes from the national budget. In any case, for a country with a GDP that ranks her as one of the poorest in the European Union, such a massive investment in a project easily passes as risky and exaggerated. But putting aside the financial considerations, this spending would have not been possible without the population’s endorsement.

More interestingly, the answer lies within the very nature of the Romanian society. It is important to note that between the Great Union of 1918 and today’s extensive celebrations, the country went through five decades of far-left totalitarianism, during which the historically rooted religiousness of every native, regardless of which province they were originated from, was massively disrupted and repressed.[iii] Hence, the overly exposed need for ritualistic expression of the Romanians. The aftermath of the communist anti-religious practice is one of the greatest causes for the present urgency for religious justification. In fact, many Romanians take pride in numerous fanatical endeavours, and the building of this Cathedral is one of them. It is also important to bear in mind that the largest proportion of undoubted supporters comes from the mature segments of the population, which suffered the totalitarian repression themselves.

From this point of view, understanding the vocal endorsement of an essentially artificial grand religious statement (i.e. the Cathedral) may seem quite simple, given the Romanian automatism of reacting to the past. However, the communist past historically ended over three decades ago and even though its following stigma still shapes much of the majoritarian mentality[iv], the post-communist generations should have a greater say in this matter.

And they do. Unfortunately, the present Romanian social reality indicates that contrary to their predecessors’ expectations, the younger generations tend to manifest an anti-communist reflex beyond the range of their understanding. In other words, the right and far-right wing option seems to be one of the most preferred politico-social orientations of the post-1989 born natives.[v] To add more authenticity, this appealing political vision comprises elements of traditionalism (orthodoxy often being one of them, but not obligatory), conservatism (sometimes stretched to questionable extents) and vivid patriotism. This combination frequently translates into a general political militancy of the youth, as it feels the need to ‘correct’ the society they inherited through the means they most comfortably understand. Thus, their perspective on the country is very often based on a certain common degree of national duty – but not in its full sense. It is actually the nationalistic thought they could best absorb from self-chosen models of the current society. Needless to say, there is a dangerous lack of critical thinking of this growing social segment.  The danger of this mentality is that it could easily fall into simplicity and inflexibility (of both thought and comprehension), and thus start endorsing ideas and principles it never really truly understood.

The central idea to this logic is virtue. Borrowed from the Christian teachings and adapted to their ethnical understanding, the virtues of the Romanian peoples were gradually translated into representative national values – the main ones being justice, morals, the value of the heroic past and the religious symbolism. Interestingly enough, the social translation of these values took place under the aegis of the Church. Even though the present institution does not necessarily resemble the actual virtues it promotes, the average Romanian tends to overlook this aspect in order to fulfil his ritualistic satisfaction of believing in a confessional system that preaches the virtues he is used to. To draw back on the main issue of the almost natural orthodox spirit of the majority, the need to belong to a community under a common national destiny which once unified Romania in 1918, is now gathering the peoples under the broad umbrella of past commemoration and religion-dominated future. This is probably the greatest achievement of the Cathedral itself – the fact that it reunites two aching parts of the Romanian nation: religion and patriotism, but the extent of their artificialness is still a dangerous variable to consider.

The right-wing young conservatories class seems to fit remarkably well in this spectrum invoking their beloved traditions, ethnical identity and religious spirit. This could be a plausible explanation for their notable militancy with regards to both the monument itself and to the centenarian celebrations that took place this year. The latter is less of a concern than the former, as it brings a great deal of advantages, such as historical awareness, volunteerism, social and cultural knowledge etc.

What is more alarming is the general tendency of the majority to overlook the injustices perpetuated within both the Orthodox Church and the Romanian state, when this does not suit their somehow rigid vision. The current issues Romania is facing domestically and internationally do not seem to occupy as a central role as the nationalistic and religious aspects. This also applies to the underlying issues of corruption, non-representative political leadership, the questionable justice system, increasing migration and many more. Perhaps ironically, it is these concrete problems of the Romanian society that have the greatest impact on the quality of life of both the young and the mature. However, the issues of self-representation – which encapsulate all the popular ‘virtuous’ profiles, seem to have become the primary concerns of the younger individuals.

On a grand scheme of thought, it would be only unfair to label this year’s centenarian ceremonies as exaggerated. The yearly communal celebrations are actually a necessary manifestation for the survival of the national memory of the past. The way this past is understood and what it is associated with, however, represents another sort of problem. In fact, the only truly unjustified part would be the orthodox grandness, which does not necessarily come hand in hand with the legitimate patriotic reason to commemorate. It is merely superficially associated with a great historical victory of a true and admirable segment of the 20th century Romania, but essentially it comes under no prospects of real necessity or national value. Luckily enough, the ‘symbolic’ Cathedral fit quite well into the rhetoric of a confused society in which the majority acts out of social reflex and out of an incomplete, yet comfortable understanding of the past.

Nevertheless, some questions still remain unanswered and one of them would be the concern of what the future of Romania looks like, rather than the past. Given the ideologically confused younger generations and the broadly passive older ones, the future of the country might not enjoy the same clarity and remembrance as its past. The Romanian national identity is, therefore, still a matter fluctuating between heroic past and traditionalism, with the orthodox factor included. One thing is certain, though, Romania has now got an immense cathedral to ‘reflect’ itself onto for centuries to come.


[i] K. Hitchins, Romania 1866-1947, (Humanitas, 2017)

[ii] “Catedrala Zgarie-nori”. Evenimentul Zilei [transl. from Romanian], (20 February 2006)

[iii] D. Dobrincu , A. Goșu, Istoria comunismului din România, vol. II, (Polirom, 2012)

[iv] A. Bărbulescu, ‘ETHNOCENTRIC MINDSCAPES AND MNEMONIC MYOPIA’ in A. Florian ed., Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania, (Indiana University Press, 2018)

[v] L. Anton, ‘On Memory Work in Post-communist Europe: A Case Study on Romania’s Ways of

Remembering its Pronatalist Past’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, Vol. 18, No. 2, Thematic Focus:

Topics in Europeanist Research, (2009), p. 115

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Crisis in Paradise: How a Political Confrontation in the Indian Ocean has sown the seeds for Asia’s coming Geopolitical Conflict


By Will Marshall, a 2nd year IR student at King’s College London and our very own in-house, Middle East and North Africa Editor. 

Image Source:

Newly elected Maldivian President Ibu Solih took advantage of the opportunity provided by his inauguration on Saturday 17th November to advocate for closer ties with the Indian Government, in a significant departure from the pro-Chinese policy pursued by previous administrations and raising the potential for a diplomatic showdown between the two Asian superpowers over the tiny island nation. Solih took the opportunity offered by his inauguration speech to announce the pursuit of an ‘India First’ approach to foreign affairs, making a personal appeal to Indian PM Narendra Modi for increased bilateral cooperation over mutual security, commercial and developmental interests across the Indian Ocean region.[1]

Whilst traditionally a close allies, bilateral relations between the Indian and Maldivian Governments have been strained in recent years as the island nation has undergone a series of domestic political crises. In 2013, Former President Abdulla Yameen came to power amidst widespread allegations of electoral fraud and corruption. Since then, Abdulla came come under fire resulting from claims of democracy erosion, political repression and jailing of opposition leaders. Indeed, even ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, renowned internationally for his work in promoting climate diplomacy was imprisoned in 2015 as a result of terrorism charges his supporters declaimed as spurious.[2] Perhaps the former President’s most significant move however, came from his abandonment of traditionally close Indo-Maldivian relations in pursuit of an aggressive pro-China policy.

The island nation, despite its size occupies a key geostrategic position straddling major shipping routes between the Far East and Persian Gulf thus making the archipelago an attractive target for Beijing and Xi Jinping, seeking to consolidate the country’s economic arteries via the ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. As a key partner in the so-called ‘maritime’ belt and road, the Abdulla administration coveted the extensive investments, numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars, offered by Beijing in order to pursue an ardent programme of infrastructural development. Nevertheless this policy came at a cost, saddling the tiny nation with an enormous $3bn worth of debt to Chinese creditors leading to claims the Maldives were at the receiving end of a neo-colonial ‘land grab’ by Beijing, similar to those pursued by the Chinese Government across Africa.[3] This exercise of Chinese economic and soft power is only one of a number of examples of similar incidences across the region in recent years. Last year, Beijing obtained a 99-year lease on the Hambantota deep-water port in Sri Lanka after the country was unable to repay loans amounting to $1.4bn having already elicited similar deals to construct port facilities capable of holding military grade vessels in Ryaukpyu, Myanmar and Gwadar, Pakistan.[4] This is further evidence of a trend worrying to both Western and Indian policymakers; where the tendrils of Chinese economic and soft power spread, the expansion of military interests is likely to follow. Having successfully militarised territorial disputes with its southern neighbours in the South China Sea, Beijing is now seeking to expand its influence across the Indian Ocean, connecting China’s arc of influence to its commercial interests in Africa and the Persian Gulf. Such a move is undoubted to elicit a reaction from China’s rival to the south as New Delhi seeks to respond to what it views as an unacceptable encroachment on India’s traditional sphere of influence.

Whilst the shock success of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, gaining a solid majority with 58% of the vote during September’s elections has allowed New Delhi to regain and reconsolidate its traditional position of influence over the Maldives, Beijing is unlikely to give up such a geostrategically significant asset without a struggle. Although India may have the upper hand for now it is probable Beijing will seek to offset these losses by pursuing closer bilateral relationships with other partners in the region, for example the Seychelles with whom Beijing has already expressed a strong interest in developing economic ties, cultural and educational exchanges or a deepening in China’s presence in Sri Lanka.[5] Whatever the strategic calculations of both capitals, it is evident is that Sino-Indian relations have hit a new, and dangerous sticking point as Beijing seeks to expand its influence into the Indian Ocean. Only time will tell whether Asia’s two emerging giants can find grounds for cooperation and compromise.









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The State of American Soft Power Under Trump’s Leadership


By Emma Steenbjerg Raun, a 2nd year International Relations student at King’s College London, currently studying abroad at the University of California Irvine, with a special interest in American politics and foreign Policy.

When President Trump delivered his inaugural address in January 2017, we saw the first step toward an America increasingly isolated from the international community as Trump touted the forceful message of “America First” while relaying a nationalist vision for the future of the country. Trump wasted no time fulfilling his promise to the American people when he, a mere three days into his presidency, signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other countries bordering the Pacific under the Obama administration but never ratified by the Republican controlled Congress[1]. Since then, Trump’s curtailing of international trade has continued with protectionist measures, starting with tariffs on aluminum and steel imports earlier this year, and the axing of existing trade deals. Moreover, his agenda has been largely dominated by nationalist policies and unilateralism, contributing to the alienation of America from key allies. Trump has continuously made good on his almost two-year-old promise of putting America first, leaving the international community without its principal leader. This has brought the discussion of the distribution and use of power to the forefront of American politics – is Trump in the midst of making the U.S. and its values far less attractive and thereby effectively undermining American soft power? Research shows that this is indeed the case thus raising the question of how much harm Trump has caused to U.S. soft power – has he obliterated it beyond repair or can America return to the values that has made the country attractive globally over the past decades?

What is Soft Power?

The reference to a country’s soft power was first made by Joseph Nye in 1990, in the wake of the Cold War, as a challenge to the conventional view that American power was declining. While hard power, particularly military power, had dominated large parts of the 20th century, especially in the latter half during World War II and the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, ideas of power changed as the century came to an end. While some scholars at this time believed that America was poised to be passed by other powers in both military and economic strength, Nye argued that something was missing from the accounts of a decline in American power – “the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than just coercion and payment.”[2] He called this soft power, and he posited that the United States, as a democratic, liberal powerhouse, would be able to use its cultural and ideological appeal, elements of soft power, to cement its leadership position on the world stage at the end of the Cold War. In the following decades, it became clear that Nye’s predictions had been accurate; the number of liberal democracies around the world grew under the influence of America and the country spearheaded several international institutions, such as the IMF and the WTO, meant to facilitate this “new liberal world order”. This came about both as a result of the positive perception of American democratic ideals, but also because of humanitarian assistance and economic initiatives such as the Marshall Plan which allocated aid to help Western European countries rebuild after the destruction incurred during World War II. This created vital international goodwill that came to benefit America in the pursuing decades and as Nye had argued in 1990, we saw a consequential shift away from sole focus on hard power toward a combination that included an emphasis on soft power with America as the leading force.

Changes in Global Perception of U.S. Leadership


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Despite the early stages of Trump’s presidency, we already see a clear picture of a global community increasingly dissatisfied with American policies under the new leadership. The Gallup poll above shows global approval as well as disapproval of U.S. leadership over the past 10 years. In the Obama years (2009-2016), approval ratings were steadily above 40 percent with some 21-28 percent disapproving of his leadership. However, a year into Trump’s presidency, we see a flip in the two numbers with only 30 percent approving of the leadership under the new president while 43 percent disapprove[1]. Even President Bush, whose foreign policy decisions, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, became unpopular in many countries, had higher approval ratings as well as lower disapproval ratings in his last year in office (2008) than Trump did in his first year (2017). What’s even more glaring is the fact that, according to Gallup, a disapproval of 43 percent is a record for any major world power in the last decade and that means the U.S. now has a higher disapproval rating than Germany (25 percent), China (30 percent) and Russia (36 percent)[2]. Moreover, during Trump’s first year in office, countries where the majority disapprove of U.S. leadership increased from 15 in 2016 to a record 53 in 2017, and among the 15 countries with the highest disapproval ratings the vast majority were Western nations and close allies proving that Trump has especially alienated long-time American allies.[3]


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A 2017 survey from Pew Research paints a similar picture of low global confidence in Trump, particularly among key allies in Europe and Asia, and attributes it to both Trump’s character (respondents overwhelmingly chose the characteristics arrogant, intolerant and dangerous when asked to describe him) and his policy decisions. As can be seen in the above image, some of Trump’s most unpopular policies include the withdrawal of U.S. support for international climate agreements (the Paris Climate Accord) and major trade agreements as well as the promise to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The Pew survey also concludes that while respondents generally hold a favorable view of Americans as a people and American culture (for example music, television and film), they simultaneously view the spread of American values and customs internationally as a negative thing.[1]

The above research strongly suggest that Trump is in the midst of undermining U.S. soft power through both his behavior and rhetoric as well as his policy decisions. The record-setting, global disapproval of his leadership would make it increasingly difficult for him to influence foreign affairs through non-military and non-economic means. Likewise, the survey on the global view of American soft power indicates that while the positive image of American culture is still intact, American values and customs are becoming increasingly unpopular as Trump enforces policies, both foreign and domestic, and employs rhetoric that fail to live up to what global citizens view as the standard of American values. Taken together, these factors are crucial in diminishing the ability of the U.S. to influence the international agenda. With the current administration’s rhetoric and policy decisions devaluing the liberal world order that America has espoused for decades, the country and its values have become less attractive and Trump has taken the country closer to the point of no return.

Can American Soft Power Resurge?

Under Trump’s leadership, we have seen a new disregard for foreign allies and the international community in general. As Joseph Nye put it in an article earlier this year, “[f]or promoters of “America First,” what the rest of the world thinks ranks second.”[2] Historically, we have seen how unpopular U.S. policies can negatively affect the attractiveness of America; that was for example the case with the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, both of which caused outrage and fueled negative views of America and American values. Less than two years into his presidency, Trump has already implemented a number of policies that caused both his popularity, and by extension the popularity of the country as a whole, to plummet. This is especially due to Trump’s insistence on withdrawing the U.S. from many of the most important international agreements such as the TPP, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal (as well as the subsequent imposition of economic sanctions that this deal had previously lifted). Moreover, Trump remains critical about international institutions such as the WTO, the G7 and NATO and has continuously threatened to pull the U.S., and their funding, from these organizations.

That Trump favors military might over diplomacy also becomes clear when looking at his administration’s budget proposals. Both the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are facing budget cuts in the 2019 while funding for defense is expected to increase substantially.[3] Trump is essentially defending his vision of “America First”, as promulgated in his inaugural address, upholding the idea that America should concern itself only with its own self-interest thereby deriding the country of its decades-long role as chief promoter of democracy and human rights. While diplomacy and soft power don’t work as forces of their own, they become crucial tools when combined with hard power strengths for facilitating cooperation with allies and enhancing the overall impact of U.S. policies. But as his dubious relationship with democracy shows, Trump remains unconcerned with soft power instead opting to assert hard power through economic sanctions and military might. Pundits argue that Trump lacks perspective on the usefulness of soft power even contending that his move away from international order is emboldening rival powers such as Russia and China who prosper in a global environment with fewer international constraints and rules.[4]

In sum, President Trump has been on a rampage to detach America from the international community, favoring unilateralism over multilateralism, since he took office in January 2017. Global approval numbers of U.S. leadership plummeted in the same period and American values came to be viewed in a more negative light as Trump continuously enforced policies that were unpopular among other global powers. If Trump doesn’t change course, he is risking further alienating American allies and emboldening competitors as U.S. soft power deteriorates, making America less attractive as a global leader and as an ally. And changing course seems unlikely for a Trump administration that has been dedicated to “America First” since the beginning. The preliminary conclusion therefore seems to be that Trump will continue his unilateral approach to foreign policy thereby continuing to diminish soft power and the ability to persuade and influence other countries. Therefore, we can’t except to see a resurgence of global approval of the U.S. as long as the country is under Trump’s leadership. However, American soft power has traditionally proved to be resilient and has survived unpopular presidents in the past, in part due to the fact that the popularity of American culture persists despite an unfavorable political climate. But considering the kind of havoc Trump has already wrecked on the attractiveness of America and American values less than two years into his presidency, it will likely be a long time before we see the country regain its soft power influence.












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Made Democracy strong again


By Julia Huentemann, 3rd year Student in International Relations and Editor-in-Chief of International Relations Today. 

Following the presidential elections on November 8th, 2016, the United States held its Midterm Elections on Tuesday November 5th, while the world was eagerly watching how America voted halfway through Trump’s term in office.

What mandates stood for election?

Both chambers of Congress, the Senate (consisting of 100 Senators, two from each state) and the House of Representatives (composed of 435 members representing the states according to the size of population) had to be re-assembled. In both chambers the Republicans have been holding the majority; in the Senate (Upper House) with 51 to 49 Senators and in the House of Representatives (Lower House) with 235 to 193 seats.

While the members of the Lower House only serve a two-year term (but in practice are often re-elected), the Senators are elected for six years. In order to guarantee continuity, not all Senators are elected at the same time. Hence, every two years one third, i.e. 35, of the 100 Senators and all members of the Lower House stand for election.

In this Midterm-Election, among the Senators 26 Democrats and 9 Republicans and among the Representatives 193 Democrats and 235 Republicans had to defend their mandates. Even though no final results are at hand when writing this article, it is a fact that the Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives (at least 223 of the 435 seats) and that the Republicans were able to firm up their position in the Senate with at least 51 of the 100 Senators.


 What do these results bring about for President Trump and his Administration?

The primary function of Congress is the enactment of laws. To make a new law, a bill is introduced by a member into one of the chambers. Each house of Congress has the power to introduce legislation on any subject except laws for raising money, which must originate in the House of Representatives. Hence, a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives can (and most likely will) refuse to authorize money for projects they do not support (such as the wall at the Mexican border). Moreover, a Democratic majority can submit requests making sure that the Trump Administration has to engage in matters other than prioritized. And finally, as a united front, the Democrats could force Trump to transparency (e.g. in terms of his private tax declaration) and to account, e.g. concerning the Russian involvement in the election campaign 2016.

In order to bypass a blockade policy by the Democrats, Trump could bring through his policy via presidential decrees, just like Obama did in his last years in office, struggling with a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. But in this case, his successor in office (in case he should not be re-elected) could rescind such decisions. To ensure sustainable change, Trump is reliant on Democratic cooperation and needs to find compromises, a skill he has not proven so far.

Another threat for Trump resulting from a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is the initiation of an impeachment process. But this is rather a theoretical threat, because in practice, Trump’s removal from office will not happen, since this requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate-vote, and a Republican-led Senate will not vote for Trump’s impeachment. Hence, this would be a waste of time and resources.

His power to appoint Supreme Court judges and ambassadors and to choose the heads of all executive departments and agencies is not affected by the new balance of power in the Lower House.

 To what extent can these results affect Europe and the rest of the world?

The president´s chief duty is to protect the Constitution and to enforce the laws made by Congress. But for formulating and executing the foreign policy of the United States, the president has overall responsibility and participates in summits conferences where chiefs of state meet for direct consultation. In this field of policy Trump does not depend on the Democrats and a policy of blockade in internal affairs might encourage him to concentrate on foreign policy instead with unpredictable consequences for the rest of the world. The more he gets under pressure on the national stage, the more he might let off steam on the international stage. A scenario, the world does not need.

Who is the winner of this election?

It was a small victory for the Republicans to have defended their narrow majority in the Senate. It was a remarkable victory for the Democrats to have gained control in the House of Representatives.

And it was a great victory for democracy! No midterm election in the recent decades has enjoyed so much attention – neither nationally nor internationally. Polling participation has increased from 37 per cent to 48 per cent respectively from 83 million to 113 million voters. Many young Americans have found their way to the polling station and especially the female electorate has been mobilized. Whatever his legacy will once be associated with, Trump obviously managed to boost appreciation for democracy itself, whether on purpose or not.

i voted

It was neither a triumph for Trump nor actually for the Democrats, even though both parties claim election victory. Only future will tell who the real winner is, but for sure this election made Democracy strong again.




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100th Anniversary of the First Czechoslovak Republic


Lucie Škopková is a 2nd year Student at King’s College London studying European Politics with a special interest in Central and Eastern European Politics.

The day of October 28th, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. The Republic emerged amidst the economic hardships and sociopolitical turmoil following World War I. under the presidency of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and its significance powerfully resonates throughout the society to this day. Many people in the Czech Republic today continue to regard the First Republic as a democratic breakthrough for the nation, especially when addressing its Declaration of Independence that was drafted on October 18th, 1918. This included important references to general suffrage, minority rights, greater gender equality, as well as the Republic’s acceptance of economic and political responsibility on the international scene with regard to the post-war environment.1

 Perhaps the two elements most profoundly associated with the First Czechoslovak Republic are the complex question of nationality and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The First Republic consisted of several ethnic groups that included Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, Germans and others, which put pressure on the Republic’s national identity. This pressure was revealed by the 1921 population census in which Czechs and Slovaks were merged under one national group of ‘Czechoslovaks’ in order to create a national majority group, contributing to the rise of a termed nation-state. Furthermore, the newly merged Czechoslovak national group concealed the fact that Czech and Slovak speakers alone were often outnumbered by German speakers, for example, which would have otherwise undermined the strength of the First Republic’s national character.2 The key figure of the First Czechoslovak Republic was the afore mentioned Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who adamantly lobbied and pressed for Czechoslovak independence on the international scene following World War I. He was the Republic’s first president and was glorified by the people as the nation’s guardian and to this day, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk is referred to as ‘Tatínek’ or the founding father of the nation and remains a celebrated, symbolic figure representing national pride and sentiment of the Czechs.

 The First Czechoslovak Republic provided the fundamental basis upon which the Czechoslovak nation continued to develop until its formal separation into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1st, 1993. However, the official separation of Czechoslovakia did not mean the influence and sentiment of the First Republic diminished amongst the Czechs and the Slovaks. It rather became one of the most symbolic and inherent parts of the nations’ history to which many contemporary historians continuously return in their academic studies.


Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk


Greater coat of arms of the First Czechoslovak Republic (“The Truth Wins”)


(1) Pergler, Charles. “An Experiment in Progressive Government: The Czechoslovak Republic.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 84, no. 1, 1 Jan. 1919,

 (2) Heimann, Mary. “A Troubled Democracy.” Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed, Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 48–87.

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China’s Greater Bay Area: How infrastructure will influence the future of the world’s most densely populated area and beyond


Louis Hobbs Martin is a 2nd year International Relations student at King’s College London with a particular interest in China and South East Asia Region.

Autumn 2018 is seeing the inauguration of two key infrastructure projects in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) in the Chinese province of Guangdong, southern China. The new Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL) was inaugurated on September 22nd, linking Hong Kong to China’s vast network of high-speed rail, whilst the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB), the world’s longest sea bridge, is currently set to open later this month, following long delays. [1]

These are key projects initiated by the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party in order to create a giant megacity in the Pearl River Delta, similar to the Jing-Jin-Ji megacity project linking Beijing, Tianjin and the Hebei province and merging them into one. [2] In order to understand the scale of this project, it is essential to understand that the Pearl River Delta is the most densely populated area in the world, having a population of approximately 70 million inhabitants in an area roughly the size of Croatia. Although outside of China, little is known of the PRD in comparison with Hong Kong, it is worth noting that the scale of the cities on the mainland side of the PRD, such as Guangzhou (old Canton) and Shenzhen (a new city created less than 40 years ago) dwarfs that of Hong Kong with its 7 million inhabitants. Were the Pearl River Delta to be its own nation, it would have the world’s 12th highest nominal GDP, standing between South Korea and Russia. [1] Nonetheless, this area is also one of great complexity with the presence of the two Chinese Special Administrative Regions (SARs): Macau and Hong Kong. The two SARs have their own monetary, legal and administrative systems, at least until 2049 for Macau and 2047 for Hong Kong.

However, with the completion of projects such as the HZM Bridge and the XRL, China hopes to further integrate its SARs into the Pearl River Delta to make it the “Greater Bay Area”, capable of becoming China’s Silicon Valley and rivalling San Francisco’s Bay Area. [3]

Given the cost of these projects (a $20bn 55-kilometer sea bridge and an $11bn trans-border highspeed railway) it is indeed to be hoped that there are sound economic reasons.

With the HZM Bridge, journey time between Hong Kong and Macau/ Zhuhai will be reduced to thirty minutes from three hours previously. [4] Officials also hope that the HZM Bridge will help to further to develop the West coast of the PRD (Macau/ Zhuhai) which is very much under-developed in comparison with the East coast (Hong Kong, Shenzhen). [5]

As for the XRL, officials hope to make it easier to get from Hong Kong, the major financial hub in Southern China to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, via Shenzhen, the home of tech giants such as Tencent (WeChat) or Huawai but also China’s first Special Economic Zone. Indeed, many believe it to be in Hong Kong’s interest to open up to the Greater Bay Area.

Historically, Hong Kong has been considered as the “gateway to China”. However, this role has been more contested over the last few years as Shanghai has emerged as the economic capital of China. But even in the PRD, Hong Kong’s importance has diminished. [3] Whilst its stock exchange is still more important than that of Shenzhen in terms of market capitalisation and its airport still busier that Guangzhou’s in terms of annual passenger traffic and cargo traffic, its port, which historically made Hong Kong what it is today, has been surpassed by Shenzhen and is seriously in danger of being overtaken by Guangzhou. Greater cooperation and higher integration of Hong Kong in the PRD could very well be one of its best chances of limiting competition coming from Guangzhou and Shenzhen as well remaining a great financial hub in the region. [3] All in all, China’s goal of building expensive and impressive infrastructure to bring together the gambling capital of the world, a top three world financial centre and the Chinese tech capital, all of which are in the most densely populated area in the world, which also happens to have three of the top ten busiest container ports in the world and numerous world-class airports, seems very bold. Not only is it bold, but also ambitious and, were it to succeed, could transform the Pearl River Delta into the “Greater Bay Area”, increasing its role as one of China’s economic powerhouses, rivalling Beijing, Shanghai and beyond.




However not everything is absolutely perfect for the “Greater Bay Area” as it faced numerous obstacles whilst building its new grand infrastructure. Obviously, if you’re going to build the longest sea bridge in the world through one of the world’s busiest maritime routes and which links three different territories, you’re going to meet a few obstacles along the way. Needless to say that this is what actually happened to China, Hong Kong and Macau during the construction of the HZM Bridge. The long-in-the-making project was originally supposed to be completed in 2016 but is finally supposed to open later on this month after numerous engineering issues that caused important delays and an increase in budget of approximately $1.5bn. [5] Human rights activists have criticized the project for its poor safety conditions with a high number of casualties and injuries having been reported on the Hong Kong side of the project, with working conditions suspected of being worse on the Chinese side but numbers of injuries and casualties are still unknown. [6] The Bridge has also raised environmental concerns as numerous environmentalists have criticized the bridge as causing irreversible damage to the habitat of numerous species living in the Pearl River Delta such as the Chinese White dolphin and which could soon be considered as endangered as a result. [5]

Finally, an increasing number of people have deemed China’s grand infrastructure projects as unnecessary given cost and considering viable alternatives already existed. It is very easy to get from Hong Kong to Macau by ferry across the delta or to get an MTR train (Hong Kong’s subway system) to the border with Shenzhen. This resulted in people considering these projects as “White Elephants” and simply as a symbol of a growing Chinese political ambition over its SARs. [7]

 But, whilst the economic motives behind these projects are constantly being put forward, is China doing this to feed its political ambitions?

 The hypothesis of China using grand infrastructure to further integrate Macau and especially Hong Kong into the local economy as part of Beijing’s growing political ambition is very plausible. It is undeniable that China has economic interests in building these projects but these also take place in a context of high political tension between China and the people of its SARs. Indeed, the completion of both the HZM Bridge and the XRL is happening just four years after the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution paralyzed the heart of Hong Kong in an attempt to pressure the Beijing government into respecting its promise of giving Hong Kong free and democratic elections for the 2017 election. The movement that lasted eighty days did not change Beijing’s mind and resulted in Carry Lam, a pro-Beijing candidate, being elected as chief executive of the HKSAR. [7]

Since then, China has intervened a numerous number of times in Hong Kong, such as the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2016 after the publishing of books criticizing the Communist regime. [8] And more recently the banning of a pro-independence fringe political party and refusal to allow entry to a British Financial Times journalist who moderated a debate which included the head of that party are seen in some circles as either directly influenced by Beijing or done to impress the Beijing government. [9]

Many people fear that China is fairly rapidly weakening the “One country, two systems” principle which emanated from the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that stated that Hong Kong would be able to keep a high degree of autonomy and hence, most of its human rights after the 1997 handover and at least until 2047. [6]

Macau, on the other hand, did not have a pro-democracy movement like Hong Kong did, but still suffered a crackdown on money laundering by the Chinese government during the 2018 summer which reduced profits made by local casinos, Macau’s primary source of revenue. The HZM Bridge and XRL are seen by some in Hong Kong as a means by Beijing to tighten its grip on the SARs before 2050. [10]

Whilst the bridge is an impressive marvel of engineering, many people consider it as just a part of Beijing’s process of “Mainlandization” for slowly integrating Hong Kong and Macau into the Chinese territory and transforming them into just two of the eleven cities of the PRD, instead of the current situation which would be nine Chinese cities and two SARs. [8] As Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy Hongkong legislator, said to CNN, the bridge “links Hong Kong to China almost like an umbilical cord. You see it, and you know you’re linked up to the motherland.”[4] So much ink has been used to write about the bridge that the XRL has received much less attention worldwide but it might just be as much of a tool to slowly incorporate Hong Kong into China. The presence of security personnel from mainland China and, more importantly, the application of mainland law at the Hong Kong XRL station (which is treated as sovereign PRC territory) is the first time that anything of this sort has happened in the former British colony. [8] Mainland law being applied in the very heart of the city could be considered a symbol of the current trend of “Mainlandization” of the SARs as it violates Hong Kong’s legislation and was only made possible after an intervention by the Beijing government.


  Christopher Balding, a former British university professor in China, resumed the situation in an interview for The Financial Times: “The battle Beijing is fighting is that if they want more access to Hong Kong’s markets and capital, they have to open up but the movement over the past few years has been in the opposite direction,” [1] Whilst Hong Kong and Macau’s slow integration into the Chinese territory seem inevitable due to the 2047-2049 deadlines and China’s growing political ambition, the way that Beijing is accelerating this process, partly by spending vast amounts of money to build mega-infrastructure, remains fascinating. Not only do the HZM Bridge and XRL show China’s wealth and might, it could also symbolize the making of one of the world’s greatest economic areas rivalling San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.

The fate of Hong Kong as a bastion of freedom of speech and (relative) democracy in Communist China remains uncertain, however, greater integration with the other cities of the Pearl River Delta could also possibly be its best chance of economic “survival”.

If the construction of mega-infrastructures does end up playing a major role in “Mainlandizing” Hong Kong and Macau, this could be a milestone for China’s future expansions such as the South China Sea, where artificial islands have already been constructed to incorporate them in the Chinese territory, but also Taiwan, which has been watching developments with the SARs closely. Hence, this is how the longest sea bridge in the world and a high-speed railway could shape the future of the most dynamic region on earth.



[1] Bland, B, “Greater Bay Area: Xi Jinping’s other grand plan”, Financial Times, 2018

[2] Qu, H, “The rise of China’s supercities”, HSBC News & Insight, 2018

[3] Follain, J, “China’s Silicon Valley Threatens to Swallow Up Hong Kong”, Bloomberg New Economy Forum, 2018

[4] Lazarus, S, “The $20 billion ‘umbilical cord’: China unveils the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge”, CNN, 2018

[5] Blackledge, B, “The HK-Zhuhai-Macau bridge: An economic excuse for a political gamble?”, Hong Kong Free Press, 2016

[6] Yip, H, “ Beijing Is Foisting a White Elephant on Hong Kong”, Foreign Policy, 2018

[7] Hale, E, “An Impressive, Unnecessary, Multi-City Bridge”, Citylab, 2018

[8] Kong, T, “Mainlandization: An overview of Communist Party attempts to control and assimilate Hong Kong”, Medium, 2017

[9] Bland, B, “Financial Times journalist’s visa renewal denied by Hong Kong”, Financial Times, 2018

[10] Fraser, N, “Macau money chiefs order UnionPay clampdown over illicit mainland China cash fears”, South China Morning Post, 2018


Image sources:

1)      Bland, B, “Greater Bay Area: Xi Jinping’s other grand plan”, Financial Times, 2018

2)      Fung Business Intelligence, “Fast facts of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area”, Business Policy and City Clusters in China, 2017

3)      Kaiman, J, “Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution – the Guardian briefing”, The Guardian, 2014


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The African ‘Oil-Rush’: A Battle Between new-found international power and domestic instability. What lies ahead for Nigeria?

image IR today

Madeline Sibley is a 3rd year Politics, Philosophy and Economics student at King’s College London, with specific interests in the international politics of energy and climate change policy.

Recent years have seen a substantial media presence concerning the ever-growing demand for natural resources amid the prospect of ‘peak-oil’ and how this has escalated the demand for new oil supplies. Yet what appears commented on to a lesser degree is that this recent global interest in Africa’s natural resources is generating a growing source of conflict between major energy players, in turn laying the foundations for countries such as Nigeria to become vital actors on the international oil stage. When taking a moment to reflect on this phenomenal turn of events it becomes evident that, somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely by virtue of this new-found power that Nigeria is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and unstable.[1]

To give some perspective, Nigeria is one of the identified ‘MINT’ economies, is the largest producer of petroleum in sub-Saharan Africa and the thirteenth largest producer in the world.[2] Endowed with plentiful oil reserves, it has the potential for an incredibly prosperous economy, but currently Nigeria remains remarkably poor, with many of its sizeable population starving. It comes as no surprise that what makes assessing the future of Nigeria in this respect difficult is the lack of transparency of the public bodies that govern the Nigerian oil sector, in particular the National Nigerian Petroleum Corporation. As is the case with many corrupt, state-owned monopolies, it is unclear exactly “how, when and to what extent corruption takes place”.[3] Nevertheless, certain avenues of corruption thankfully can be identified.


Due to Nigeria’s control of vital resources it is becoming increasingly powerful and increasingly profitable; strengthening demands for a more equitable distribution of oil revenues.[4] Yet according to Dr. Charles Ebinger, a Senior Fellow with the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institute, billions of dollars of Nigerian oil money continues to vanish into London and Swiss bank accounts.[5] As a direct repercussion of this, for approaching two decades now, Nigeria’s Delta region has faced escalated insurgency risks and growing instability alongside the persistent security concerns of relentless kidnappings. Not only is this intensifying instability and deepening the poverty crisis, the consequential alienation of the impoverished Nigerian people has created a schism between the people and the elites which has been exploited by Boko Haram militance.[6] It is thus unsurprising to find that the bulk of poverty coexists with Boko Haram strongholds in the Northern regions of Nigeria.

Ultimately, if Nigerian elites continue to loot the rents from their county’s oil wealth the Nigerian people can expect not only to remain “marginalised and excluded from the benefits of oil” but will also be forced to face the reality of an explosive political emergency.[7] Nigerians must be heard clearly in their united call for major reforms to the state in an effort to diminish the corruption that has propelled their country into turmoil. Despite the great challenges that lie ahead, perhaps drawing attention to these issues will help ensure greater oversight of the Nigerian oil sector in pursuit of stability and transparency at a time of increasing international power for Nigeria.

[1] Roland Dannreuther, “International Relations Theories: Energy, Minerals and Conflict” Polinares, no.8 (2010): 3.

[2] Michael Watts, “Resource curse? governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria”, Geopolitics 9, no. 1 (2010): 50.

[3] Alexandra Gillies, “Reforming corruption out of Nigerian oil?” CHR. Michelson Institute, no.2 February, 2009 [Accessed September 14, 2018].

[4] Michael Schwartz, “The Nigerian oil industry and renewed instability in the Delta”, Global Risk Insights. July 27, 2018, [Accessed September 15, 2018].

[5] Daniel Tovrov, “Nigeria Poverty Rises as Government Deals With Corruption, Rebels”, International Business Times. February 13, 2012, [Accessed September 14, 2018].

[6] Daniel Tovrov, “Nigeria Poverty Rises as Government Deals With Corruption, Rebels”, International Business Times. February 13, 2012, [Accessed September 14, 2018].

[7] Michael Watts, “Resource curse? governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria”, Geopolitics 9, no. 1 (2010): 51.

The end of ‘Rajoyismo’: the downfall of non-ideological technocracy in Spain

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 12.24.46Excma. Sra. Da. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría takes her oath as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for the Presidency and Territorial Administrations before H.M. King Felipe VI, November 4th 2016.

Alfonso Goizueta Alfaro is a 2nd year student of History and International Relations at King’s College London and also the author of Limitando el poder, 1871-1939 and of Los últimos gobernantes de Castilla, with an interest in diplomacy and government.

June 1st 2018: Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister since 2011, is ousted from power by a no-confidence motion put forward by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE); a few days later he announces his withdrawal from the leadership of the conservative Popular Party and from politics. July 21st 2018: the PP has a new leader, Pablo Casado, 37. This young and exciting party leader with no experience in government wins against Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, 47, Rajoy’s deputy prime minister and natural heiress. September 10th 2018: Mrs Sáenz de Santamaría withdraws from politics and abandons the Popular Party.

Since November 2011, when Mr Rajoy won the general election with an absolute majority, Spanish political analysts and media have coined the term ‘Rajoyismo’ referring to the set of policies and attitudes of Mr Rajoy and his government. It is an ambiguous term many in Spain have been using in the last eight years with different significations. For example, the online newspaper Libertad Digital, wrote in early July 2018 that the Popular Party had to choose between ‘Liberal renovation or more Rajoyismo’, thus defining Rajoyismo as a form of political immobilism which supports government interventionism. The Spanish extreme left, represented by pseudo-Communist parties such as Unidos Podemos or Izquierda Unida, identify Rajoyismo’with economic austerity, corruption scandals and support for large corporations and fortunes.

It is difficult to define what ‘Rajoyismo’ has really been. Mariano Rajoy hasn’t been a traditional conservative leader in Spain. He hasn’t appealed to nationalistic feelings of ‘the grand Spain” or to the traditional values of conservatism and thus has been considered weak by many when confronting nationalistic problems such as the Catalan secessionist crisis of 2017. He has simply been an administrator of the state, a technocrat. As such he managed to put Spain through the most terrifying economic panorama of its recent history without having to resort to a financial rescue from the European Union. He had, nevertheless, to increase taxation and cut government spending, a sacrilege for centre-right governments. Rajoyismo, therefore, could be described as a form of government based on the rule of necessity, not on the rule of ideology. Rajoyismo is a form of technocracy which leaves traditional political ideology in the background.

Rajoyismo was practiced by what became the core of all of Rajoy’s governments from 2011 to 2018: the Deputy Prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the Minister of Employment, Fátima Báñez, and the Minister for the Treasury, Cristóbal Montoro. Although these statesmen are part of the centre-right PP, they have been carrying out a liberal technocratic agenda which in several occasions confronted the more Christian Democrat wing of the council of ministers and the Party. Their detractors have accused core members of Rajoyismo of being ‘social democrats’ because of their economic policies and their ambiguous posture towards the demands of the different Autonomous communities the Spanish territory is divided into. Those who argue that the core of Rajoyismo sympathised with social democratic methods fail to understand that Rajoyismo, as Mr Rajoy, Mrs Sáenz de Santamaría and Mr Montoro practised it, is a form of government which is based on doing what needs to be done, not what one would desire to do. A critical member of the Popular Party of Catalonia argued that in the last years the PP had fallen into the hands of technocrats with no ideology at all. Yet, at the end of the day, technocracy is the ideology of what is right, of what is correct. Fiscal pressure was imperative for a country which was on the verge of being financially rescued by the European Union. The European Economic Adjustment program, which Spain was advocated to, was averted; it was replaced, nevertheless, with harsh austerity measures which were, nonetheless, necessary, for by 2014, after five years of economic depression, Spain’s GDP rose again.

As Rajoy left power in June 2017, the PP began the search for a new leader. Sáenz de Santamaría was the natural successor and many thought she would indeed succeeded her political father after the Party’s XIX Congress. Yet Santamaría’s non-ideological technocracy had earned her several opponents within the Party, opponents which, despite being loyal to Rajoy, did not hesitate to support a “non-natural heir”. She lost to Pablo Casado, a young member of the Party’s Executive Committee who won the hearts and minds of the members of the XIX Congress by appealing to the ideology which had been forsaken during the period of Rajoyismo . Mr Casado has gone back to a period in which the PP could be identified with the values of life, family, morals, territorial unity and expansionary fiscal policy. It isn’t that Rajoyismo relinquished these values, on the contrary. Rajoyismo was always based on the values of the PP but yet wasn’t over dependent on them and it didn’t consent party dogmas to influence the governing of Spain. Ideology makes politics; technocracy makes government.

Over this summer, Spain has been speculating about Santamaría’s future after her defeat in the XIX Congress: would she integrate Mr Casado’s team in a reformed party? Or would she leave? She finally put an end to the incognita: yesterday, she left her seat in the Congress of Deputies and the Party. Indeed it was difficult to imagine Santamaría continuing her political career as a mere MP after having been Spain’s most powerful stateswoman in recent history. Her withdrawal from politics signals the end of Rajoyismo. The PP will no relive a period of its history in which it aimed to represent the solidity of conservative thought. Let’s see if it manages to do so. In the last elections, the PP has been losing votes from its “left wing”, to the centrist Liberal party Ciudadanos (C’s). It would therefore need a more liberal, moderate approximation to the Centre rather than to the Right, where the right-wing party VOX barely constitutes a threat to its electorate.

Rajoyismo will never come back for it was very dependent on Mr Rajoy’s persona. Sáenz de Santamaría was the only realist heir of Rajoy. This form of right-wing governing has been unprecedented in Spanish history. In the History of the Spanish Right-wing Rajoyismo has certainly been extremely important for it has been an attempt to serenely reconfigure the Right in times of global political exaltation. The renouncement of Sáenz de Santamaría is sad news for Spanish politics, for the Spanish Right and for all of us who sympathised with the principles of Rajoyismo. She was an extremely prepared and hard-working politician who represented the continuation of a political movement which separated itself from the embryo of the party ideology in order to achieve its goal: the technocratic, and hence correct, administration of the state.

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Negotiating with the Taliban: As Ghazni burns is an end to the conflict in sight?


Will Marshall is a 2nd year International Relations undergraduate student at King’s College London and MENA Editor for International Relations Today.

Reflecting on the tumultuous events of recent weeks in the world of international politics, it is easy to understand the lack of airtime being given to yet another fierce battle which continues to rage on the dusty streets of Central Asia’s most war-torn country. Whilst the eyes of journalists have been diverted by the what has been quoted as the worst week so far in Donald Trump’s already turbulent presidency amid allegations of financial fraud and election interference, Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis and the British Government’s shambolic preparations for a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit, the battle for the Afghan city of Ghazni, a strategically crucial city of 150,000 located on the main road between Kabul and Kandahar, passed relatively unnoticed by the majority of mainstream media outlets[1].

This apathy is reflective of the growing indifference of the international community towards Afghanistan, 17 long years after the 2001 US invasion of the country and with no end in sight. Despite the withdrawal of the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in 2014, the anticipated transition of full responsibility for Afghan internal affairs to local security forces has yet to occur. The withdrawal of NATO Forces was hardly expected to occur overnight, with the Obama administration adopting a gradualist approach calling for a 50% reduction in US troops by the end of 2015 and a full withdrawal of combat forces by late 2016 as Western troops adopted a strictly advisory role.[2] Unsurprisingly, given the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, this withdrawal has corresponded with a remarkable resurgence in the capacities of the Taliban. Following an estimated trebling of the groups strength from 20,000 to 60,000 in the four years since the NATO withdrawal, the Taliban are now thought to be active in 70% of the country’s provinces with militants in full control of 14%, the highest proportion of the nation’s territory since the 2001 invasion[3][4].

President Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan, adopted over a year ago and designed to reflect this new reality has similarly failed to stem the insurgent tide. In an abrupt reversal of his previous promise to get out of Afghanistan Trump has significantly increased the US presence in the country with total troop numbers now in excess of 14,000 along with a significant escalation of counterterrorism and aerial operations. Despite this increase in capacity, US strategists have all but given up attempting to regain full control of the country as US Forces increasingly focus on the defence of major population centres such as Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif whilst leaving more remote outposts in the hands of poorly-trained and equipped local police. In all practical terms, this strategy means Kabul and its Western Allies have effectively conceded much of rural Afghanistan to the militants, giving them free rein over vast swathes of the nation’s territory.[5]

It is precisely such a strategy, the abandonment of vast hinterlands to militants in which they can operate relatively undisturbed that allows them to coordinate major offensives on urban centres, such as Ghazni, with impunity. Coupled with repeated attacks in recent months against symbols of Afghanistan’s fragile institutional and democratic capacities – such as Islamic State’s attacks on a Kabul military hospital this March resulting in the deaths of over 100 civilians and, later this May against a voting centre, again in Kabul, with 69 confirmed fatalities which further serve to undermine the authority of President Ghani’s already tenuous authority. Thus, it is increasingly apparent that for neither Kabul nor Washington there is no clear endgame for what a post-conflict Afghanistan might look like, never mind a clear strategy to bring such an outcome about. As the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall concisely puts it, in the absence of a ‘fight to win’ strategy, ‘the US is in a triple bind: it cannot win the war, it cannot halt the war and it cannot leave’.[6]

However hard it may be to swallow for those who have dedicated the best part of two decades to fighting militancy in the country, a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Ghani’s National Unity Government seems to be the only hope for America if it is to have any chance of a full withdrawal from Afghanistan at any time in the next decade. Even the usually tough-talking Trump Administration has recognised the necessity of finding a workable, long-term settlement in the war-torn country with its agreement to begin secret talks with the Taliban last month in Qatar. Despite the distinct possibility of a breakthrough deal on the table, one which could transform the country’s political landscape, there remain immense obstacles to peace in Afghanistan after four decades of almost continuous conflict.



Firstly, there is the issue of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in the first place. In spite of Washington’s desire to play the role of facilitator for an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ peace process, the Taliban refuse to entertain the prospect of face to face talks with Kabul, rather insisting on negotiating indirectly via the US.[7] This is because the Taliban leadership continue to frame their struggle in the language of Pashtun Nationalism as much as religious extremism and thus see their as one against foreign interference. Through such a lens the US remains their principal adversary, even though the vast majority the insurgency is now conducted against local security forces loyal to President Ghani’s Regime, which in the eyes of the Taliban remains little more than an American puppet and therefore not a legitimate foe.[8]

Though signs of Taliban cooperation are increasingly encouraging, with local commanders generally respecting a three-day ceasefire with Government Forces over the Islamic holiday of Eid in May, the thorny issue of what exactly the militants may demand as part of a comprehensive settlement remains.[9] The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban-controlled regime which controlled the country from 1996 to 2001 became infamous for its draconian rule over the country, implementing strict sharia law with public executions and amputations for acts deemed ‘un-Islamic’, the banning of television, music and cinema and the expulsion of women from public life in their extreme interpretation of the local Deobandi sect of Islam. Whilst the Taliban have so far been unclear about the extent to which they are willing to compromise in their strict imposition of Islamic law in any negotiated settlement, recent reports from inside Taliban-controlled territory suggest the militant group has come to recognise the importance of moderating their harsh rule and even cooperating with local government authorities.

Last year, a BBC report from Taliban territory in Helmand province reported an uneasy accord, with the militants allowing authorities to provide government-run health and educational services relatively free from interference. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s swift and effective, albeit harsh legal system has won them a degree of support from the local population, exasperated by the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy of central government system of justice.[10] However, such encouraging signs should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Taliban hold over much of their territory remains tenuous compared to what it was under the Islamic Emirate and the group are likely keen to consolidate their base of support in areas under their control by moderating their approach. There is little to suggest the militant groups ultimate objective of establishing a state ruled under strict sharia law in Afghanistan have shifted. Nevertheless, their newfound flexibility implies the group may be able to adapt and come to a workable and mutually satisfactory compromise with the government when it comes to establishing a future settlement.

Another issue is the Taliban’s professed commitment to Pashtun Nationalism. In fact, in many ways the group are just as much a nationalist as a religious movement. Despite being the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, concentrated in the south and east of the country, represent just over 40% of the total population. Taliban rule enshrined Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal code of the Pashtun people across Afghanistan, a move which did much to antagonise the country’s other minority groups including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazara who regarded such a policy of Pashtunisation as a form of ‘internal colonisation’.[11] The discrimination against Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities under Taliban rule was not limited merely to the imposition of alien social norms such as the mandatory wearing of the burqa and blatant favouritism towards Pashtuns when appointing officials and administrators, but at times spilled over into outright genocide, including the infamous three-day long massacre of the Hazara population in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif during August 1998. Given such bitter experiences it is unsurprising that the prospect of the Taliban returning to take a stake in Afghanistan’s governance is regarded with trepidation by the country’s non-Pashtun population. It goes without saying that any such agreement between the Taliban and Kabul would require stringent legislation to ensure all Afghanistan’s minorities feel invested in and represented by a new administration as well as sufficient checks and balances in place to keep the Taliban’s inherently expansionist tendencies in check. Nevertheless, in practice implementing policies to ensure all of the country’s diverse population feel invested in the system is easier said than done, a fact illustrated by the experiences of the current Ghani Administration.



For any negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban to be effective a fundamental prerequisite is the existence of a strong and united central Afghan Government, something which has been sorely lacking in successive administrations following the US invasion of 2001. The current National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani is a case in point. The administration has been riven by internal turmoil ever since its inception by disputes between Ghani and his senior officials, notably Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the governance of the country. Again, ethnicity and ethnic favouritism is a major point of contention with Ghani, one of the few senior Pashtun politicians to side with the US and its Allies against the Taliban standing accused of ‘extreme Pashtun Nationalism’ and Abdullah suffering similar accusations of a pro-Tajik bias.[12] Whilst this may or may not be an exaggeration (certainly the degree of discrimination is far from the policy of ethnic cleansing endorsed by the Taliban) the fact remains that ethnic favouritism remains rife under Ghani. For example, of all officials appointed to the President’s Office of Administrative Affairs in September 2015, 75% were Pashtuns compared to just 14% Tajiks who represent Afghanistan’s second largest minority. Meanwhile, in September 2017 the Government was subsumed by scandal following the leaking of a confidential memo stating ‘Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us [Pashtuns], should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here’, further legitimising accusations of systematic discrimination.[13]

 A further bone of contention is ongoing debate over the core nature of governance. Ghani, on one hand advocates for a more centralised form of government with increased power in the hands of Kabul. Abdullah, on the other continues to advocate for further decentralisation, perhaps realising Afghanistan’s minorities may feel more investment in a system of governance which provides them considerable autonomy over their own affairs. Moreover, the drive for increased centralisation has generated further friction between Ghani’s government and Afghan elites, with the President accused of being an ‘arrogant micromanager’, having ‘no close friends, no feel for politics’ and being ‘the leader of a country that only exists in his own mind’.[14] These considerable fissions among the country’s political class suggest Afghanistan’s government remains far from being capable putting forward a strong, unified front in negotiations with the Taliban.

Perhaps the greatest issue plaguing Kabul however, is the inability of the regime to provide basic services, infrastructure and security for its population. As we have seen repeatedly in other so-called ‘failed states’ in the region such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen the single biggest factor facilitating the spread of extremism is the inability of a state to fulfil basic obligations to its citizens which grant the state its legitimacy. When a regime is unable to provide effective security to its population from mass shootings and suicide bombings, when key public services such as healthcare and education are chronically underfunded and public sector wages six months in arrears, when the justice system is slow, corrupt and ineffective, these are the conditions which lead a state such as Afghanistan into a crisis of legitimacy such as that which it has faced the past 17 years. Despite the hostility the majority of Afghans hold towards the Taliban and its ideology, with a recent Asia foundation poll revealing 80% of the population have no sympathy towards the Taliban at all, it is easy to understand how the degree of security life under the militants provides and its swift, though harsh form of justice proves an attractive alternative to those let down by the failings of the central government.[15]

Thus, the resolution of Afghanistan’s multiple issues of governance is a fundamental prerequisite to engaging in negotiations with Taliban. Failure to resolve these issues and provide a credible alternative and counterbalance to the organised and highly motivated militants is merely setting the Kabul regime up for failure. The Taliban are likely to drive a hard bargain and will take any opportunity to undermine Kabul along the way. If the central government is unwilling or unable to present a united front, reduce corruption and provide the basic services its citizens expect from it, opening into negotiations may do more harm than good for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.



Finally, there is the issue of continuing foreign interference in Afghanistan and the challenges this provides to negotiators striving for a workable settlement. Afghanistan has long been the epicentre of regional clashes of interest, a fact reflective of its strategic geopolitical location between Central Asia, the Islamic world and the Indian subcontinent. This fact of life for policymakers dealing with Afghanistan has long been a source of trouble when dealing with the Taliban. Ever since the Soviet invasion in the 1980s the Pakistani Government has more or less openly supported fundamentalist militant groups in Afghanistan, keen to limit Indian influence in the country and build strategic depth. This has taken the form of providing military hardware, training and logistical support as well as providing a safe haven for Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.[16] Seeing the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy there is a high probability the Pakistani Government will do its best to sabotage the formation of a stable Afghanistan in which the Taliban are represented but with firm limits to the extent of their power. The support Pakistan provides to militant groups has been one of the key factors limiting the success of the US-led coalition. There are however, signs that Washington is finally hardening its stance with President Trump suspending military aid to Islamabad this January accusing the Pakistani Government of ‘nothing but lies and deceit’ in response to US military aid.[17]

Whilst the US may be making progress regarding Pakistan, other regional and global players are increasingly taking advantage of Afghanistan’s instability to further their own agenda. Russia, ironically given their historic enmity, has maintained covert links with the Taliban for several years.[18] Like the US, Russia sees the threat from international terrorism as one if its major security concerns. However, the Taliban have been keen to affirm that their strategic concerns do not extend beyond Afghanistan. It is on these assumptions that Russia has come to an uneasy accord with the militants, recognising the reality on the ground that the Taliban will not be defeated militarily and are more or less a permanent feature of the Afghan political landscape. Moreover, the emergence of Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan during early 2015 has given a common cause for concern for both countries. Moscow, on one hand fears the groups expansion in Central Asia and into Russia’s sphere of influence which in turn could provoke unrest among Russia’s large Muslim population. Meanwhile, The Taliban have long been viewed with contempt by the Islamic State who despise the Taliban’s parochial and nationalistic goals, seeing the Pashtun tribal influences on Taliban rule as deviating from true Islamic law. Perhaps most significantly, building bridges with the Taliban will aid Moscow in its bid to undermine NATO in Afghanistan. This is linked to Russian efforts to destabilise the West and its allies across the globe, as is the case in Ukraine and Syria.

Further meddling by foreign powers for strategic purposes places yet more strain on the fragile Afghan peace process. In July, Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kubalov announced his intention to invite the Taliban to engage in Russian brokered peace talks in Moscow alongside the Afghan Government.[19] Whilst the negotiations have been postponed for the time being, owing to the demands of the Afghan Government that the peace process be ‘Afghan-led’, the emergence of a parallel peace process to that spearheaded by the US suggests that Afghanistan is increasingly becoming drawn into the strategic conflicts of regional and global powers. Such a development can only be bad news for the Afghan Government and their Western partners as they strive to achieve the stability necessary for a negotiated settlement to be put into practice.

Whilst the fires of Ghazni die down Afghanistan, after 17 years of war finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, both the Taliban and the Afghan Government appear to be ready and willing to come to the negotiating table, though each only on their own terms. On the other, there remain formidable obstacles to negotiators seeking an inclusive, workable and long-term peace. Continuing Taliban obstinance, the division and corruption of the Afghan Government and meddling by foreign powers pushing their own strategic objectives all serve to undermine the fragile prospects for peace. Nevertheless, for the first time in 17 long years the prospect of Afghanistan’s major political players coming to an accord appears a realistic possibility. We can only hope that the Afghan political class and international community take advantage of this opportunity to put aside their differences and make the peace that Afghanistan deserves a reality.