Syria exposes the Decline of American Diplomacy


September 14, 2013

Syria exposes the Decline of American Diplomacy

By Kishore Mahbubani*
Financial Times A-List
September 11, 2013

KishoreBarack Obama is both right and wrong. He is right in saying that “the credible threat of US military action” pushed Syria to give up its chemical weapons. He is wrong in believing that a limited military strike would have made the Syrian situation better. If indeed the US President had ordered a bombing of Syria, it would have made him and some Americans feel good. But it would have done no good. The people of Syria would not be better off. It would only have made a messy situation messier. This is obvious.

It is good that Mr Obama has decided to pursue the diplomatic path. Yet the bad news here is that America has over time lost its skills in diplomacy. If anyone doubts this, just look at Washington’s failure to even persuade its fellow Group of 20 countries to join its statement on Syria.

The G20 website boasts that its 20 members represent almost 90 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and 65 per cent of the world’s population. At the end of the meeting, 10 G20 countries – representing 12 per cent of the world’s population – supported the American call for action. The maths is clear: 50 per cent of the world’s citizens, a vast majority of the G20 population, did not support the US.

Why did Washington fail to persuade? One simple reason is that in recent times America has increasingly abandoned diplomacy as a tool in its foreign policy. When a problem surfaces, be it in Iraq or Kosovo, Sudan or Libya, the impulse is to bomb, not engage. But this was not always the case. In previous decades, America has produced some of the best diplomats the world has seen.

Henry Kissinger skilfully steered China into leaning towards America duringhenry-kissinger the Cold War. This sharply tilted the correlation of forces against the Soviet Union. James Baker travelled around the world to gather overwhelming support for America’s first invasion of Iraq. Indeed, it became a profitable war with the US actually making money instead of losing $1.7tn, as it did in the second Iraq war.

Similarly, Richard Holbrooke did a brilliant job of restoring geopolitical confidence in the countries of Southeast Asia after the American military beat an ignominious retreat from Saigon in 1975. He saved the “dominoes” from falling without a single military action. And Chester Crocker would do a brilliant job of marshalling African opinion in support of America.

So what happened? How did America lose its art of diplomacy? Three major handicaps shackle American diplomacy. Firstly, in most countries, the diplomats spent 20 per cent of their time negotiating with their own capitals and 80 per cent of their time negotiating with their foreign adversaries. In Washington, the ratio is the reverse. American diplomats have to spend 80 per cent of their time negotiating to obtain a reasonable mandate from all their political masters in DC and 20 per cent of their time negotiating with their foreign adversaries.

Secondly, even before Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) came along, Washington has been a leaky place. In diplomatic negotiations, diplomats have to take risks. Occasionally, they have to go beyond their assigned mandates and suggest viable compromises to lure the other side into making compromises too. American diplomats have to be especially careful in not going outside their mandates as their proposals could be leaked and they would be politically killed by the media and lobbies in DC.

Thirdly, American diplomacy has become imprisoned by a strange prejudice in DC. Diplomacy was invented 3,000 years ago to enable societies to talk to enemies, not friends. The whole point of diplomatic immunity was to enable the establishment of diplomatic missions in enemy capitals. The US has inverted the meaning and purpose of diplomacy by insisting that a country must become a “friend” before it can establish an American mission there. This curious prejudice explains the inability of America to establish missions in Tehran, Pyongyang or Havana.

Despite these limitations, America can succeed in diplomacy if it works out clear and defined objectives in Syria. If the defined objective is to destroy chemical weapons in Syria, the US will easily gain global support. No country has defended the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Almost all countries want to do something to prevent it from recurring. Hence, if America were to take the lead, as Mr Baker did in the first Iraq war, to actively seek the support of the rest of the world for this objective, it will succeed.

One point is worth emphasising. UN inspectors did a very good job of investigating the weapons of mass destruction sites in Iraq. Their record was vindicated when the US failed to find a single trace of WMDs after invading Iraq. Hence, it would not be an act of weakness for the US to work closely with the UN inspectors.

However, if the US switches its objective to regime change in Syria, the majority of the rest of the world will balk. It is true that Bashar al-Assad has few supporters overseas. But few believe that a sudden toppling of Mr Assad will make Syria better. At the end of the day the messy situation in Syria can only be improved through a messy political process involving all of the major parties.

ObamaAfter having been in diplomacy for more than 33 years, I know well that good diplomats can handle and improve messy situations. America should therefore switch away from its recent impulse to bomb and revive its old impulse to plunge into diplomacy, no matter how messy. Mr Obama was right in saying, “The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.” He should now couple that statement with the reminder in the US Declaration of Independence that America should show “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. And if America can once again win over the majority of the world’s population to support its objectives in Syria, this would prove that America has begun to regain its lost diplomatic skills.

*The writer is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is ‘The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World

20 thoughts on “Syria exposes the Decline of American Diplomacy

  1. Excuse me Dean Kishore Mahbubani,

    That is YOUR side of story. I hope you DO NOT impose on others and I hope you can accept criticism.

    Decline or for better word, proxy of failure is also success turn inside out.

    The world has gotten more complex. If you remember the time when the world joined US in labeling India PARIAH when it went on to built its ABomb. Then what happened later? US and India became best of friends.

    A twist of events by Putin making good the boiling situation might initially caused US diplomacy decline as you put it but when it turns out to be a win-win for the world for Obama NOT to take the bulls by its horn when he didn’t exercise his option, what then you have to say?

    To me, a cautious leadership and if that doesn’t steer toward the ascend of American diplomacy, what is? Tell me please?

  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/10266957/Saudis-offer-Russia-secret-oil-deal-if-it-drops-Syria.html

    http://armstrongeconomics.com/2013/08/28/saudis-offer-russia-secret-oil-deal-if-it-drops-syria/
    According to the British newspaper the Telegraph, Saudi Arabia’s Bandar threatened Putin with Olympic terror if he backed Syria. These people are really messing with the wrong guy. Putin is not the coward and he has been building his troops and even has been doing joint exercises with China.

    Prince Bandar has reportedly pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. Bandar allegedly said. “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us.”

  3. Kishore Mahbubani, that may be “YOUR SIDE” of the story but it was a good analysis. As one “Americanised expert” said Obama & the Democrats are never as strong as the Republicans in foreign policy anyway. If it were the Republicans, they would have just bombed them for regime change using what they would call “shock & awe decapitaiton” strategy.

  4. With due respect, the author is not living in America nor understands the inner dynamics of an electoral system. Singapore is a city state and decision at the top is readily made. In a vast country of a free market place of opinions and influences, it is not so easy to make decisions to please everyone, especially not foreigners.

  5. Whether one lives in a city state or in a vast continent the basis of successful diplomacy remains INTENTIONS.

    It is lack of sincere intentions that is causing so much misery in this world. Deceptions rule… not sincere intentions. The very word DIPLOMACY has come to mean saying one thing and doing something else.

    The Red Indians of old had it right : “Paleface speak with forked tongue”.

  6. Dean Kishore Mahbubani,

    LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN…….war is avoided !

    The red line in the sand had remained to checkmate renewed attempts.
    Now they have committed for UN to take control of the stocks, Syria must walk those talks else by default then Syria is asking to be bombed.

    As a dean I find affirming your stand is not on. If you are a politician, perhaps we know you have to chose which side of the line you are one. But, as an academia, affirming your stand is NOT ON, you hear? As an academia, you should offer students critical inquisitiveness. Please read Socrates and Plato again. Shame on you. Shame on NUS.

  7. the title says ‘Syria exposes the Decline of American Diplomacy’ which is quite inaccurate.
    the US practises the European brand of diplomacy which has evolved to the state it is now. you can’t simply say what is possible in the 1960s is possible in 2013, we live in a changing world.even the buying power of $1 in the 60s is not equal to the buying power of $1 today.
    the US diplomacy has not declined but it has adjusted itself to the new conditions it has to face today.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomacy

  8. Mathew, did you honestly expect critical academic thought from the likes of Kishore? He’s the quintessential diplomat. He would reflect his master’s voice. His line of thought is from a world that he inhabited professionally – a Cold War world that was less connected. Its a world when Assad the father gassed thousands in Hama and got away. Today, as then, negotiation is the basis of diplomacy. In this instance, one cannot simply resort to “negotiation” to sidestep the Syrian issue.

  9. Isa,
    You know the anemo does not work with forked tongue when they got sarawak & sabah as part of malaysia. What’s the state religion in sabah in 1963? None. Since everybody is supporting Assad, why not support a secular Malaysia? Throw Islam as national religion out of constitution. Assad’s party is a socialist party

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ba%27ath_Party_(Syrian-led_faction)

    Looker,
    Kishore is atill a well respected diplomat. Furthermore, Putin is still playing the cold war lines. Else, why send editorial to New York Times?

    Din,
    Let me refresh you with the memory how Tony Blair or rather UK intervention save Sierra Leone from total destruction. All it took is 800 paratroopers

  10. Yes, leave arab to arabs to solve the issues & africa to africans

    Aaargh, I have forgotten, it’s only 100K dead. 900k more to go

  11. When I have gone into the Rwanda genocide. One can replace Putin with Mitterand. Assad with Habyarimana. I quote ”

    Even after the 1993 peace agreement signed in Arusha, businessmen close to General Habyarimana imported 581,000 machetes from China[20] for Hutu use in killing Tutsi, because machetes were cheaper than guns.[21] In a 2000 news story, The Guardian reported, “The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, played a leading role in supplying weapons to the Hutu regime which carried out a campaign of genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. As Minister of Foreign Affairs in Egypt, Boutros-Ghali facilitated an arms deal in 1990, which was to result in $26 million (£18m) of mortar bombs, rocket launchers, grenades and ammunition being flown from Cairo to Rwanda. The arms were used by Hutus in attacks which led to up to a million deaths.”[22]

    enjoy the show

  12. Incidentally BO also stands for Break Out; break out of Bush’s trigger happiness and dictatorial decisions.

    Syria’s back is against the wall now. The world is soon to sign an accord to see that Syria hand’s over chemical stock pile (with benefit of doubt they had used it) to UN.

    Should Syria fail, Russia is held accountable to have fail this initiative. Meanwhile 1 or 2 US navy ship is on standby in the region to watch over this fulfillment.

  13. Matthew,
    Go ask Pak Bean on the constitution of US of A. President don’t need congress’s approval to strike Syria so long it’s within 90 days. Google War Power Act to know more. For your viewing pleasure

  14. Din,
    Who can forget George Bush Sr order the invasion of Panama? I bet he had done it without going to Congress

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