International diplomacy seems increasingly to be governed by knee-jerk ideological reflexes and gut instincts that lead decision-makers to take reckless decisions. Case in point: Syria.
A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon in Aleppo,Syria. Photo: AP
When four years ago Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he devoted his acceptance speech to the topic of “just” and “unjust” wars. He said that there were situations when war was not simply necessary, but inevitable. He put his finger on it.
No sooner did he complete the “unjust” war in Iraq than he had to wage a “just” war in Libya. Now, even before they have left Afghanistan, the sense of justice is about to call them to the Syrian front. Our global leader has his job cut out for him; he constantly has to demonstrate his dominance to keep others in the pack at bay…
The events in and around Syria call to mind all the previous international interventions since the 1990s and the mysterious uses of poison gas that look uncomfortably like a provocation and immediately develop into a casus belli. They call to mind the involvement of UN inspectors whom nobody wants to listen to because the powers that be know who is to blame in advance. And the harrowing pictures of children choking to death that can leave no one indifferent. And the “coalition of the willing” ready to take part in visiting retribution on the hideous regime.
It may sound odd, but today there are no ways of verifying information that command the trust of all the parties involved. During the Cold War, provocations were not uncommon too. But the two superpowers that occupied the top rung in the world hierarchy, first, were interested in nothing happening against their will, and second, realized that the price of uncouth intrigues could be unaffordable – nuclear war. In the context of tense nuclear deterrence, one always had to be able to instantly distinguish a real threat from the technology of managed escalation of a conflict.
Today, there is no military-political clinch and there is no threat of a local clash developing into a world war. Universal information transparency and seeming abundance of data on what is happening have done nothing to deepen the understanding of processes, but made it easier to manipulate them. The institution of independent observers acting under the universally recognized UN mandate is being eroded, and confidence has been undermined by the metamorphoses and cataclysms that fell to the UN since the end of the Cold War.
The UN saw itself sidelined when countries acted without its sanction, or else its mandate was interpreted arbitrarily. It is hard to say whether the role of UN inspectors in Iraq or OSCE observers in Yugoslavia was more about attempts to prevent war, or on the contrary, precipitate its beginning.
Bringing in observers usually does not so much clarify the truth as increases the level of manipulation and heightens the pitch of information warfare. However, if a “suspect” government, for example, refuses to cooperate with international observers fearing their bias or guided by its own ideas of sovereignty, this is almost automatically considered to be proof that it has something to hide. Bashar Assad, unlike Saddam Hussein, seems to be aware of it, but it would hardly make any difference.
There is something even more depressing. One has the impression that something has happened to diplomacy in the 21st century. In former times, wily emissaries of leading governments were weaving cobwebs of intrigues, striking behind-the-scenes deals, conducting complex negotiations while war was seen as a legitimate, but last resort (unless we were talking about aggressive powers bent on expansion).
Now we see the same primitive scenario repeating itself again and again. An internal conflict flares up in a country in a part of the world that is at the focus of world attention. Influential powers immediately make up their minds as to who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Then patently futile diplomatic activities begin, aimed not at brokering peace, not at achieving a mutually acceptable result, but at forcing the “bad guys” to capitulate to the “good guys.”
The international community then shrugs – it is all in vain. As rule, it is at such moments that some ugly incident bordering on genocide occurs whereupon “patience runs out.” And presto – the whole might of the most powerful alliance in human history is unleashed against the “bad guys” (usually the government) to help the “good guys” to prevail.
Politics has been reduced to knee-jerk ideological reactions and gut instincts.
Let us set aside morality and justice, which do not determine policy. All this still looks pitiful. First, acute problems, the roots of which go deep in the historical confrontations between nations and religions, are reduced to a simple black-and-white scheme. Then the movers and shakers vainly try to figure out why things have gone awry and why the “good guys” have turned out to be so ungrateful.
And finally, the saddest thing. If one could discern behind it all some kind of strategy and a clearly formulated goal, then such actions could at least be explained. But there seems to be nothing of the kind. Politics has been reduced to ideological reflexes and gut instincts. Reflexes force one to find everywhere “the right side of history” in order to be on the right side at the right time, that is, trim one’s sails to the wind. Instincts whisper: if you are not sure, be the first to strike. Looks a bit too primitive for the increasingly complex and confusing 21st century world.
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