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Under the Radar
Important international developments you might have missed over the past week – and why they matter
Anyone interested in politics and policy had a lot on their plate last week. Overseas, President Biden conducted high-level summitry with fellow world leaders at the G20 conference in Rome and the annual global climate meeting in Glasgow. Here at home, state and local elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere raised the ominous specter of a coming Democratic electoral bloodbath in the 2022 mid-terms. Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal – the first half of the Biden administration’s two-part domestic agenda – finally passed the House and now sits on the president’s desk awaiting his signature.
With all that went on at home and abroad over the past week or so, it’d be surprising if some important events overseas didn’t fall through the cracks of our limited attention spans. They all show the importance of continued and active American engagement around the world, including robust diplomacy to prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control and head off problems before they become crises. What’s more, these issues illustrate how new threats like ransomware, cyber-surveillance, and drones combine with more traditional mechanisms of military force and economic coercion to threaten basic freedoms and human rights around the world.
Here are five developments from the past week that could dramatically affect U.S. foreign policy to keep an eye on:
Not so quiet on the cyber front. The U.S. government took two major actions on cyber issues over the past week. First, the Commerce Department added two Israeli cybersurveillance firms – Candiru and NSO Group – to its spyware blacklist. NSO Group in particular has become notorious in recent years for exporting its surveillance software to a wide variety of autocratic regimes, allowing them to spy on journalists and dissidents around the world.
Second, the Justice Department revealed it had indicted of two individuals – one Russian, the other a Ukrainian arrested by Polish authorities – on ransomware charges. These hackers are believed to be involved in the REvil ransomware ring, responsible for ransom attacks against computer networks in the United States, Australia, and Canada. It’s one of the cyberattacks that prompted President Biden to warn his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, against aiding or abetting criminals attacking American critical infrastructure.
Simmering diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Israel. The sanctions levied on the NSO Group allegedly caught the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett by surprise. Israeli officials say they’ll press the Biden administration to remove the company from the Commerce Department’s cyber blacklist – and pledge stricter supervision on the export of Israeli cybersurveillance software.
Israeli unwillingness to countenance the reopening of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem – shuttered by the Trump administration after it moved the U.S. embassy to Israel to the divided city – threatens to create major diplomatic row between the Biden administration and the Bennett government. President Biden has repeatedly pledged to reopen the consulate and America’s diplomatic mission to the Palestinian people, but Prime Minister Bennett and other top Israeli officials have been vocal in their opposition to the idea. If not resolved, it’s a dispute that could set the U.S. administration and the Israeli government on a collision course.
Meltdown in Ethiopia. Fighting between the Ethiopian government and rebels in the region of Tigray escalated dramatically as the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front marched on the capital of Addis Ababa and the government of Prime Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency. Over the weekend, the State Department authorized the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees from Ethiopia and urged U.S. citizens to depart the country as soon as possible while commercial flights still operated. U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman traveled to the region in order to, in State Department vernacular, “underscore the United States’ grave concern with the escalation of the conflict.”
Ethiopia’s potential implosion occurs just weeks after a military coup in neighboring Sudan, and at a time the Biden administration hopes to prevent failed states and end conflicts across the wider Middle East and Africa. At minimum, a failed state in Ethiopia would make that task more difficult by adding another case to a growing list of civil wars and failed states in that part of the world.
An assassination attempt on Iraq’s prime minister. Over the weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi survived an assassination attempt by suicide drone. Iraqi security officials reportedly attributed the attack to Iranian-backed political parties and their affiliated militias. These parties lost ground in Iraq’s recent national elections and aim to reverse their losses by force – in a morbid echo of the January 6 insurrection in the United States, they’ve even dubbed their campaign “Stop the Steal.” They’ve been protesting and clashing with Iraqi security forces in the weeks since the October 10 election.
With the collapse of Afghanistan’s deeply flawed democracy in August, the demise of Iraq’s own highly imperfect democracy at the hands of Iranian-backed militias would be another blow to President Biden’s aim to bolster democracy worldwide. It’d also hamper the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, a terrorist network that remains dangerous despite its conventional military defeat.
Russian shenanigans. With winter approaching and European nations feeling the pinch of tight energy supplies, Russia has yet to open the spigot of natural gas to the continent. Though President Putin says he’s ordered the state energy company Gazprom to turn on the taps, Moscow also claims its own domestic storage needs to be topped up before it can export gas to Europe. It’s feared that Russia may be using gas as a weapon to make sure Germany certifies the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline for operation – and Europe remains dependent on Moscow for its energy needs.
At the same time, President Biden dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to let the Kremlin know the United States was watching its military build-up on the Ukrainian border. All par for the course for President Putin, perhaps, but still a reminder of the corrosive role Russia continues to play in Europe.
As important as President Biden’s summitry, the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package, and state elections are, it’s important not to let our understandable attention to these events prevent us from keeping our eye on developments overseas that may impose themselves upon our attention whether we like it or not. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility – and the United States retains enormous power and influence in global politics. Many of those proposing “restraint” and other nostrums duck this responsibility and fail to offer any real or constructive alternatives.
All five of the issues featured here remain open and receptive to diplomacy. But for diplomacy to work, they’ve got to reach and stay on our diplomatic radar screen – even as we rebuild at home and deal with climate change abroad. Constant technological evolution and shifts in the geopolitical balance of power have created new threats to basic freedoms and human rights both at home and abroad that we can’t afford to ignore.