The Syrian crisis opens a new, more complex chapter in diplomacy, in which no nation has the leverage to impose their simple solutions on others.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at Geneva's news conference on Syria on Sept. 14, 2013. Photo: Reuters
The world hasn’t faced diplomatic tasks on the scale that Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry – or Russia and the United States, for that matter – are trying to resolve right now since the 1990s, when the previous rules-based world order was crumbling.
Two examples from that earlier epoch come to mind. One is the removal of Soviet nuclear arms from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to Russian territory. That was a challenging operation both technically and from the political and diplomatic perspective (the newly independent states were obviously reluctant to let such a status symbol go for nothing). It was also an operation that required close interaction between Moscow and Washington.
The second is Germany’s unification – a historic event, because the divided country had been a key symbol of the Cold War, which was itself becoming a thing of the past, together with all the policies it embodied. There have, of course, been many other crises in the intervening twenty-plus years, yet the outcomes were always pre-determined by the balance of power and the overall geopolitical situation, with diplomats haggling about details rather than engaging in open-ended disputes.
The Syrian crisis stands out – above all, because it closes a chapter in diplomacy. More than a year ago, Sergei Lavrov thus formulated the importance of the moment: “The way the Syrian crisis is resolved will largely determine the model for the international community’s response to internal conflicts in the future.” The essence of the model that has been in the making since the end of the Cold War was that diplomatic negotiations no longer determined the outcome of conflicts, rather they depended on a political decision about who’s right and who’s wrong, with the ‘right’ party getting all the help, up to and including an armed intervention (cases in point: Yugoslavia and Libya).
This approach, which seemed natural in the early 1990s (that’s when the idea of humanitarian intervention as a synonym for a ‘just war’ first came to life), became increasingly more difficult to implement, causing more and more misgivings, if not for any other reason than because the end results weren’t meeting expectations.
In the case of Syria, calls for business as usual, i.e., intervening and punishing the autocrat while establishing order, were heard from the very beginning. Especially since the whole mess started back at the time when the UN Security Council authorized an intervention in Libya. However, nothing was working. There were almost no volunteers to shoulder the risk; the most the external powers were ready to do was fight a war by proxy, ideally by supporting one internal faction or another.
And even when the U.S. president, who had made a lot of rash statements that were forcing him to act against his own will, called on everybody to punish the evil, the response was lukewarm. While some were still willing to support America morally and materially, only a few were prepared to stand side by side with it. And no wonder – even the U.S. Commander-in-Chief appeared to be talking war as if somebody was holding him at gunpoint and forcing him to utter all those threats.
The Russian initiative had the effect it had precisely because it promised a solution to the dilemma – how to avoid a war nobody really wanted (just have a quick look at U.S. and European opinion polls) while not losing face.
Suddenly diplomacy was in demand again – real work done by professionals that are sincerely looking for a way out of the impasse and brainstorming new ideas together, while trying to foresee any snags and circumvent them in advance. The less trust between the parties, the more important it is to talk through all the nuances to avoid different interpretations that can not only derail the process, but also lead to a much deeper crisis.
The time ahead will be an epoch of the revival of diplomacy. Many have pondered a multi-polar world – some with hope, some with concern. And here it is, for all intents and purposes. America has realized that it can’t rule the world all on its own. In addition, the American public has grown weary of its role as a global policeman and is no longer keen on international expansion. More and more players vying for influence are emerging, except that their aspirations are far from always underpinned by actual abilities or skills to use that influence.
Whatever the case, the time of simple solutions is over. And there’s nothing that can be imposed on anyone any more – nobody has the required leverage, something the situation in the Middle East has clearly demonstrated.
It’s kind of symbolic that Moscow and Washington are at the origin of this new phase once again, even though the bipolar world order is long behind us. Whenever actual diplomatic skills combined with a readiness to enforce agreements are needed, Russia and America still have no peers. Europe, divided and bogged down in its own problems, lingers in the deep periphery. China still prefers to watch from the sidelines. The ‘new stars’ such as India or Brazil just have no idea where to start – they don’t have any experience in real big-time politics. The regional heavyweights from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Iran are essentially fighting in the conflict, so high diplomacy is the last thing on their minds.
So, once again, everything is revolving around the Kremlin–White House axis. One caveat though: This time around, Russia and America won’t be able to decide everything on behalf of others. Multi-polarity is sort of a game in which a certain amount of disobedience has to be expected.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff. This opinion was first published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta