What Makes Strange Diplomatic Bedfellows?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because global relations get done in strange ways.
By Kate Bartlett
Leaders of some countries have gone through more bouts of conscious uncoupling than Hollywood stars. Others are swiping right on the strangest of profiles. If opposites attract in romantic relationships, the same can certainly be said of diplomatic ones. Today’s Daily Dose looks at some surprisingly dangerous liaisons, past and present, in global politics.
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Israel and Arab Nations. Is Benjamin Netanyahu turning pro-Arab? Israel’s prime minister this week finds himself once again scrambling to form a new government with his Likud Party after the fourth national election since spring 2019. One possible solution is to team up with the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that would prove controversial but potentially give Netanyahu a path to remain in power. This follows Israel recently establishing formal ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, who all got goodies from the Trump administration in exchange and share Israel’s skepticism toward Iran. The next domino to fall is seen to be the relatively moderate Oman.
Israel and Brazil. For decades, Mossad has been hunting down old Nazis in South America, after many escaped there from Germany at the end of World War II. So the region seems an unlikely choice for a diplomatic push by Israel, but in 2017 Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to tour South America, and later he attended Brazilian populist president Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Before Bolsonaro, whose comments that the Holocaust should be forgiven drew ire, Brazil had taken a pro-Palestinian stance, but Bolsonaro knows that warmer relations with Israel play well with his evangelical base. For his part, Netanyahu stands to gain from closer economic ties, and more friends abroad bolster Israel’s stature.
Turkey and Russia. Historically, the Russian and Ottoman empires engaged in multiple conflicts, and they pursue drastically different geopolitical agendas today. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have come together in an unlikely place: Syria. The protracted civil war there has seen the two powers act as partners at times, opponents at others. They are on different sides of the long-running conflict, with Russia backing the regime of Bashar Assad and Turkey backing the opposition, but Moscow still helped enable Ankara’s offensive against the Kurdish forces Erdogan considers terrorists. Confused? Another result of their cooperation in Syria is the fact that Putin has succeeded in drawing Turkey away from NATO. But will this precarious friendship hold?
unlikely asian friendships
Cambodia and North Korea. While Maoist-suit-clad Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot had similar tastes in fashion and philosophy, it was Cambodia’s mercurial monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, with whom North Korea’s “Dear Leader” had the really close relationship — and the two nations’ ties endure even as Cambodia continues to recover from the Khmer Rouge ultra-Marxist revolution and genocide. Prime Minister Hun Sen has somehow maintained relations with Pyongyang as well as key donors Seoul and Washington. Still, it’s telling that the North Korean Embassy sits right next to Hun Sen’s residence, and until recently several North Korean restaurants operated in Cambodia, allowing the Hermit Kingdom to earn much-needed cash.
Taiwan, eSwatini and Somaliland. A landlocked nation formerly known as Swaziland, eSwatini is a rare African country to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China is king on this continent, and while some citizens may grumble about a new imperialism, governments are eager for Beijing’s loans. So while most countries kowtow to Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, eSwatini is sticking with the underdog, which provides the absolute monarchy with barrels of aid. And it’s no longer alone. Somaliland on the Horn of Africa, which Somalia considers a breakaway province (notice any similarities?), recently established diplomatic relations with Taipei.
The Philippines and Russia. Take a walk around central Manila and U.S. influence is apparent from the malls and fast-food joints to the American-inflected English used by many Filipinos, who were under U.S. control for a half-century until World War II. But populist President Rodrigo Duterte has been moving away from Washington, which has been critical of his deadly war on drugs, and toward Moscow. While the Philippines tries to renegotiate an agreement that allows U.S. troops in the country, Russia has provided weapons and held joint exercises with the Philippine army. Duterte has declared himself a big fan of fellow macho strongman Putin and the two have met numerous times.
Bangladesh and Japan. Ever so carefully, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is strengthening ties with Japan to balance China’s influence in the South Asian nation. Meanwhile, Japan is increasing investments in Bangladesh as its companies relocate from China amid deteriorating ties and lingering supply chain concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia and the Central African Republic. The icy streets of Moscow are far removed from the heat and chaos of Bangui, but that hasn’t stopped Russia and the CAR from building warm ties, and Russia’s presence in the unstable country grew again after December’s violence-marred elections. Russian mercenaries abound in the mineral-rich CAR, employed by the Wagner Group, which is owned by an oligarch close to Putin and provides a security detail for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. And Russia’s natural resource-motivated pivot to Africa doesn’t end there, with plans for a naval base in Sudan on the strategic Red Sea and a huge platinum mine in Zimbabwe.
Ethiopia and Eritrea. These erstwhile enemies signed a peace agreement in 2018 that garnered Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a Nobel Peace Prize. But Abiy’s new friends in the ultra-secretive state that many term “Africa’s North Korea” have been quick to get involved in the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Human Rights Watch has accused Eritrean soldiers of massacring Tigrayan civilians, and on Tuesday Abiy acknowledged the abuses after months of denials. Before making peace, Eritrea and Ethiopia had not had diplomatic relations for 20 years following a border war, but the Tigray offensive has badly tarnished Abiy’s reformist image — and he might be destined for the rogue’s gallery of Peace Prize winners.
Cuba and South Africa. There’s a restaurant in a hip neighborhood of Cape Town that serves a mean mojito. But its name, Cape to Cuba, would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago, when the apartheid regime and Havana each had troops fighting on opposite sides of the Angolan civil war. Now, however, the two nations couldn’t be closer, with the communist country that backed the African National Congress during the liberation struggle now aiding Pretoria in a new fight against COVID-19. Havana last year sent more than 200 Cuban medical experts to South Africa as the country battled the pandemic, and every year South Africa sends many of its doctors to train at Cuban medical schools.
Barbados, the UK and Africa. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced last year the country would be removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, signaling a break with its British colonial past. Meanwhile, other commonwealth countries are taking a more skeptical look at the royal family after recent racism allegations from Meghan Markle. The government of Barbados has at the same time been expanding its presence in Africa, establishing diplomatic offices in Ghana and Kenya, as the island nation also looks to woo friends in Asia and Latin America.
Estonia and the EU. Its eyes are turning westward. The new government of Estonia’s first female prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is set to enhance ties with the EU and NATO after the previous administration struck a deal with the far right and insulted allies. Estonia was forced to apologize to Finland in 2019 after its interior minister called the latter’s new prime minister, Sanna Marin, “a salesgirl.” Meanwhile, relations with neighboring Russia have worsened in recent weeks, with Estonia urging the EU to stick with sanctions against Moscow.
Moldova and the EU. Moldova’s recently elected president, Maia Sandu, is trying to pull her tiny nation closer to the EU and away from Russia. The former World Bank adviser beat Moscow-backed incumbent Igor Dodon last year and has already asked Russian-backed forces to vacate the breakaway Transnistria region. Unlike Dodon, Sandu has made clear she will visit Russia only after traveling to other pro-Western neighbors and has vowed to clamp down on corruption.
dirty u.s. diplomacy
North Korea. The world was slack-jawed as the American president waxed lyrical about the “love letters” he’d received from the ruler of the world’s foremost pariah state. “I like him. I get along with him great,” Donald Trump said of Kim Jong Un, a despot who assassinates even members of his own family. “We have a fantastic chemistry.” The unlikely bromance started like many meet-cutes in romantic comedies: Two people take an instant dislike to each other (though you don’t often hear the word “dotard” in rom-coms), hijinks ensue, and by the end of the film the two are inseparable. Only in the Kim-Trump version, both had access to nukes.
Saudi Arabia. Among the many morally dubious liaisons over the years, perhaps none is so stark and long-lasting as Washington’s friendship with Riyadh. Not only was the Saudi monarchy responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but Osama bin Laden and many of the 9/11 hijackers also were natives of the oil-rich state, which has done more than any other country to spread extremist Islam far and wide by funding radical clerics. Not to mention its abysmal record on women’s rights. And yet even as President Joe Biden has struck a harsher rhetorical tone and withdrawn support from the Saudi war in Yemen, he has yet to drop any real punishment on Washington’s longtime ally.
The Khmer Rouge. In the name of opposing communism, America allied itself with some nasty types from Indonesia to Nicaragua to Argentina. But its support for the Khmer Rouge takes the deadly cake. The genocidal regime was overthrown in 1979 after communist Vietnam invaded and helped establish a new government of Khmer Rouge defectors, including current prime minister and ex-battalion commander Hun Sen. Yet because of its anti-Vietnam policy, the U.S. declined to recognize the country’s new rulers and continued to back the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations until the early 1990s. In supporting Brother Number One Pol Pot’s government in exile, the U.S. was aligned with China — yet another case of strange bedfellows.
surprising diplomatic history
France and Rwanda. There is not much love lost between France and Rwanda these days, thanks to Paris’ checkered history in the east African state. In the 1990s, the French had a close relationship with the Hutu-dominated government responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis. Even today, Hutu mass murderers are still being discovered hiding in France. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron set up a commission to look into the Élysée’s role in the conflict, with results expected soon. A journalistic investigation recently published by Mediapart and AFP found documents showing Paris was aware of genocide suspects hiding in a French safe zone, and not only failed to arrest them but actually facilitated their escape.
Poland and Japan. United in their dislike of Russia in the early 20th century, the Poles helped to supply the Japanese with intelligence during the Russo-Japanese War, and a great friendship was born. After the Russian Revolution, Japanese soldiers rescued hundreds of Polish children orphaned in Siberia and brought them back to Japan. When World War II rolled round, however, the friends found themselves on opposing sides. Despite this, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, went against his superiors and rescued 6,000 Jews fleeing German-occupied Poland, writing them visas to travel via Japan to safety.
The U.S. and China. Sports diplomacy can either be used to exert pressure, like when the world isolated apartheid South Africa’s teams, or to bring countries together. One famous instance was when U.S. chess genius Bobby Fischer played “the match of the century” against Boris Spassky in the former Soviet Union (reworked recently in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit). But perhaps the most surprising cocktail of sports and politics involved a group of American Ping-Pong players at the height of the Cold War. Time magazine called China’s invitation to the American team “the ping heard round the world,” and the following year, President Richard Nixon followed suit and visited Beijing for talks. Point, Forrest Gump.
- Kate Bartlett, OZY Author Contact Kate Bartlett