Patience is key to Libya’s future

US ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley acknowledges that the situation in Libya is far from satisfactory, and that the challenges in Ukraine and Israel are considerable. But there is light at the end of the diplomatic tunnel

There can be little doubt that we live in interesting times. With tensions between Russia and Europe mounting over the ongoing Crimean crisis, and an apparently chaotic situation still unfolding across North Africa after the tumultuous events in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, there is a very real possibility that the boundaries of the world geo-political map may have to be redrawn.
Meanwhile, an all-but forgotten civil war in Syria continues to undermine any hope of lasting peace and stability in an already war-torn region… and as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reminded us all in a speech to Bloomberg this week, these and other situations call for a rethink on how (or even if) “the West” should position or involve itself in these epochal upheavals.
The United States has been a key player in most, if not all, these issues. And while the post of ambassador to Malta may not seem to be directly in the thick of things, it is nonetheless a busy time for the present incumbent, Ms Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation in Ukraine is very firmly at the top of the diplomatic agenda for the United States at the moment. Given the sensitivity of relations with Russia – formerly a world superpower, traditionally inimical to the US, and evidently still a military force to be reckoned with – both America and the EU have so far invested heavily in a diplomatic, as opposed to military, response to the impasse.
But at the same time questions have been raised about the consistency of this approach. Observers have noted an apparent discrepancy in Western attitudes towards self-determination of emerging countries. A referendum in Crimea suggests that an overwhelming majority would prefer the peninsula to secede from Ukraine, and be absorbed by the Russian federation. But while the US and Europe have so far resisted this possibility, their approach to the 2008 Kosovo-Serbia question was markedly different. The US supported and recognized Kosovar independence at the time. Does this not contrast with its current opposition to a referendum in Crimea? Isn’t this a case of two weights two measures?
Abercrombie-Winstanley acknowledges that this question keeps cropping up in international circles. But she insists that the two cases are entirely separate, and should be judged on their own respective merits.
“There is a very real, very important difference between the two scenarios,” she tells me as we sit in the lavish drawing room in her official Balzan residence. “In Kosovo, the procedures that led to independence had been sanctioned by the United Nations security council. There was a process in place that had been agreed by the international community. The situation in Ukraine, on the other hand, is not internationally sanctioned at all…”
On the contrary, Abercrombie-Winstanley argues that the unfolding situation runs directly counter to recommendations made by the United Nations: which called for all sides to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Clearly, the proposed secession of Crimea to the Russian federation would be a direct contradiction of a policy that has been agreed upon at UN level.
Matters were not helped by the fact that armed forces have occupied buildings in east Ukraine – a situation the US ambassador likens to “bullying and intimidation”. It was such circumstances that led to the Crimean referendum, and this is clearly not conducive to a free and fair decision.
The same tactics may also have exposed the apparent fragility of the peace that has reigned between Russia and the West in recent decades. Inevitably, the realpolitik aspect of the situation now raises uncomfortable memories of the hostilities of yesteryear. With relations between Russia and Europe rapidly frosting over, and the US mulling new sanctions against its traditional rival, is she concerned with a possible return to a Cold War-style standoff?
Abercrombie-Winstanley shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s a real possibility. Today it’s a very different world we live in. Many of the norms we have in place today simply didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago. There are lots of institutions in place to ensure that diplomacy continues to run its course.”   
Here she rattles off a list of global institutions, ranging from G7 to G20, that have radically altered the international political landscape over the past three decades. The fundamental difference between now and then, she explains, concerns the levels of communication that takes place between the two sides.
“In the days of the Cold War, we could not even have envisioned a discussion where all parties would sit around a table and hammer out a way forward. Today, we all understand that diplomacy is the key to finding ways of out of an impasse…”
Nonetheless she acknowledges that diplomacy, in the case of Ukraine, is still a work in progress.  “We have not arrived where we want to with Ukraine,” she concedes. “We continue to make it clear [in our communications with Russia] that we expect all sides to stand by the agreements that have been concluded. On their part they have so far said the right things. It is time to implement the right things, too.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley makes no secret of what the US considers to be ‘the right things’ to do in this scenario. Separatist forces are expected to step back from the buildings they have occupied, and to lay down their weapons.
How realistic are these objectives? Her reply exudes cautious optimism. “I believe we have the right formula. The important thing is that there is no one who believes that a solution cannot be found…”
All sides, she adds, are committed to continue to focus on ways to avoid an escalation.
Nonetheless, people outside the immediate spheres of diplomacy and international politics may be forgiven for being somewhat less optimistic. After all, western intervention in other parts of the world has occasionally proved disastrous. One such case would appear to be our close neighbour Libya. Three years after the NATO intervention, the situation in Libya remains chaotic and unstable. Is she satisfied with the outcome of the US involvement in this case? And was enough thought given to the post-Gaddafi scenario, when contributing to his overthrow?
“Satisfied? No. I don’t think anyone can realistically express satisfaction with the situation as it stands today…” Here I concede that it was the wrong choice of word on my part. Still, some would argue that the situation in Libya today is arguably worse than it was under the previous regime: when, despite the undeniable human rights abuses and other intrinsic problems associated with dictatorship, the country did at least have a basic security infrastructure.
Abercrombie-Winstanley acknowledges that things could perhaps have been handled better, but argues that the pace of progress in Libya is also dictated by the failures of the past regime too. “We know that Libya had been under a dictatorship for 40 years: a dictatorship which undermined civil society, and left an institutional vacuum in its wake…”
Part of the problem, in fact, concerns the lack of institutions to take over from the previous regime, resulting (among other things) in the fragmentation of power among local and largely tribal netowrks. In brief, much of what other countries take for granted has to be built from scratch in Libya. Under such circumstances, the US ambassador suggests it would be unrealistic to expect any sudden changes for the better.
“No one expected it to be easy. But the Libyans have a wide variety of partners in the international community to help them put into place all the structures that are lacking; to help provide security and basic services. Many nations are committed to Libya’s progress. The US, Turkey, Italy, the UK… all are providing assistance. Malta, too, provides help in training the police.”
And there have also been positive developments. Abercrombie-Winstanley points out that, following recent developments, oil wells previously held by rebels are now in the hands of the central government. With the oil flowing once more, the country can begin to address its financial and economic exigencies.
But all this, she adds, takes time. “Patience is the key. In the end it is up to the Libyans themselves to determine their future… knowing that they can rely on support from their international partners.”
At the same time, the unrest currently witnessed in that country may have had repercussions on other countries undergoing similar (albeit not identical) upheavals. In the case of Libya, the UN Security Council resolution was limited to a no fly zone to prevent attacks on civilians. In practice, however, this was used to support regime change... arguably going beyond the original remit of the UN.
One possible repercussion of this state of affairs is that the countries originally involved in the Libyan uprising – including, but not limited to, the US – may now be reluctant to involve themselves in other conflicts such as Syria. Is the Libyan precedent part of the reason that Western  countries have seemingly abandoned Syria to its bloody fate?
Abercrombie-Winstanley plays down any direct comparison between the two scenarios. “I don’t think the Libyan situation has any real bearing or influence on US policy regarding Syria. Each revolution, each conflict or war situation, has its own dynamic and must be judged on its own merits. Whatever the US decides in the case of Syria will depend on the specific situation in that country.”
Meanwhile Syria is not the only Middle Eastern country in which US policy or involvement has been questioned over the years. The situation in Israel is another area where the US has had to face considerable criticism. Foremost among such complaints is the argument that the US has been either unwilling or unable to put concrete pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution… or even to stop building new settlements, in accordance with agreements that the US helped to broker.
How can the world take the US seriously when it seems unable to bring an ally to accept the need for a resolution to this conflict?
“It would be hard to argue that the US is not making an effort in the region,” she replies. “US engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation has been unmatched by any country in the world. I absolutely reject the view that the US is not committed to the issue, or has not done enough.”
Nonetheless, she admits that much of this effort goes unnoticed. “Most of the work is done behind closed doors. But a lot of work is being done. The obstacles, the mis-steps, the problems… these are all very well known, and very, very real. But the US commitment to helping the parties reach an agreement has been profound.”
Be that as it may, the situation on the ground in Gaza and the occupied territories has hardly improved in the meantime. Some might argue that, despite all the diplomatic efforts, it has deteriorated considerably. Many Palestinians still live in a state of abject poverty, and human rights abuses continue to be widespread…
“Yes, and rockets continue to be fired into Israel, too. But is the situation changing for the worse?” The answer to that question, Abercrombie-Winstanley adds, depends on how far back you go when comparing the past with the present. The Israeli-Palestinian question, after all, is an issue that has deep roots.
“I am reminded of an open letter to the Israeli/Palestinian people from someone in Ireland, which compared the situation with the conflicts of Northern Ireland. It said something like, ‘We have been in a fight for 800 years. Don’t make the same mistakes we made’.”
This in turn makes for an optimistic comparison. For even if some hostility remains, the Northern Ireland conflict – arguably much older than its Israeli-Palestinian counterpart (unless, of course, you trace the latter’s origins all the way back to the foundation of the Kingdom of Israel some 3,500 years ago) does seem to have been settled in recent years.
Could a similar resolution be on the cards in Israel? As with the Libyan question, Abercrombie-Winstanley seems to discern a faint light at the end of the tunnel. “Part of the outcome of all that work I talked about earlier is that both sides are talking to each other. There is an effort by both parties, helped by the US, to reach a solution. But the obstacles are profound. As long as the doors of communication remain open, there is hope for a solution.”
As we have we have so far discussed issues pertaining to at least four distinct global regions – America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East – it is perhaps inevitable that we extend the net to also include a fifth: Asia. In the past year we have seen unprecedented interest shown in Malta by China, mainly in the form of an energy deal which envisions a shareholding in Enemalta, and ownership of the power station. It is no secret that relations between the US and China are somewhat frigid at the moment. How, therefore, does the US view the strengthening of relations between Malta and China? Is Abercrombie-Winstanley, as US ambassador, concerned that China may be seeking to expand its political influence in Europe specifically through Malta?
“The short answer to your question is ‘no’,” she replies genially. “Every nation is focused on its own economic interest. China is no exception.”
Nor, for that matter, is the US. “We are all looking out for our interests. Increasing trade opportunities is part of the job of a diplomat, too. Just as we support measures that may boost US trade, I recognise that other countries are entitled to do the same.”