September 14, 2013
Syria exposes the Decline of American Diplomacy
By Kishore Mahbubani*
Financial Times A-List
September 11, 2013
Barack 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 during 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.
After 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‘