Of wars, bitter disputes and public diplomacy at the court of international opinion

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

One year ago, it would seem impossible, or at least extremely improbable, to have war – all-out, real war – breakout in European territory. Even after the (NATO) intervention in Yugoslavia, open war in Europe seemed inconceivable.  Now, we are nearing one full year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow’s “special military operation” having degenerated to fully-fledged war; all the while, the initial defense support/military hardware/surveillance offered to Kyiv by Western countries has built up an effective alignment of NATO and (with minor vacillations) the EU against Russia. All the while regional disputes have also built up around the world without degenerating to war situations: the face-off over Taiwan and brinkmanship in the South China Sea may be far away for us, but the Eastern Mediterranean situation and especially the increasingly bitter dispute between an invasive Turkey and Greece constitutes an ever-present disruption.

In this context the instruments of public diplomacy, especially exerted through the media, are increasingly brought to bear. The influence exerted on official policy is not negligible – at times it can be conclusive. The recent non-decision at Ramstein over supplying Ukraine with (German) Leopard-2 tanks was largely an episode fought at the court of public opinion: Germany needs a NATO-wide decision over the deployment of western heavy armour in Ukraine, the US looks set to proceed unilaterally, e.g. by supplying MI Abrams battle tanks. Unless, that is, the Republican control of the House of Representatives shifts U.S. policy…

Also, look at Washington’s designating, the notorious mercenary Wagner Group, fighting along Russia in Ukraine, as a “transnational criminal organization”: no direct impact is expected, but rather a fence is built around any temptation to side with Moscow.

In a lower-impact, but politically significant move the European Commission ties to muster support so as to pass by the (renewed) Hungarian veto over the decision to disburse 500 million euros of defense aid to Kyiv from the (strangely misnamed) European Peace Facility. The sums involved make it clearly a symbolic move, but an important one at keeping a unified front.

Playing to the international public opinion can backfire, too. As witness to that, look at the efforts increasingly deployed by Turkey to present its own side as the one suffering from Greek intrusiveness if not outright aggression – all the way from not demilitarizing the Aegean islands and suppressing the Turkish minority in Thrace to mistreating refugees and migrants at the border. The evident attempt of such efforts to turn facts on their head contributed to Ankara losing part of the international support it has gained over the years.

The cover – and Special Report – of The Economist devoted to President Erdogan’s leading for Turkey the way to autocracy (to the point of toying with dictatorship) is a witness to the risks of diplomatic and international public relations overkill.