If we really desire peace, diplomats must prevail over the unilateralists
Tensions have been massively accentuated by two volatile and unpredictable leaders — Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The world’s nuclear clock surely inched several minutes closer to midnight with the appointment of trigger-happy neocon John Bolton as Trump’s national security advisor. As the young, spoilt and impulsive son of a dictator, Kim was widely viewed as a wildcard. However, by making serious overtures toward the US and South Korea, and putting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula on the table, Kim is displaying a sense of self-preservation, as well as revealing cannier diplomatic instincts than he was previously given credit for. For the first time, during last week’s visit to China, he resembled a serious statesman.
Recent days have also seen collective Western measures against Russia. By ordering the attempted assassination of the turncoat spy Sergei Skripal on English soil, Vladimir Putin sought to reinforce his invincible image on the eve of Russian presidential elections. It perhaps seemed a good idea at the time: With the US president apparently in Putin’s pocket, and Britain and the EU at loggerheads over divisive Brexit negotiations, there would never be a better moment to wrong-foot the enfeebled and divided Western world.
Thus, the impressively robust response of expelling more than 150 Russian diplomats from over 20 states across Europe and elsewhere — including 60 from America alone — represents a remarkable own-goal for Putin. Critics point out that the measures could have gone further; for example, targeting the rivers of dirty Russian money pouring through banks in London and New York. Nevertheless, this symbolic move is massively discomforting for the Kremlin (which made its own reciprocal expulsions) in a week where more than 60 deaths in a Siberian mall aroused bitter domestic criticism against the Russian authorities.
American measures against Moscow demonstrate that, irrespective of the White House’s position, much of the US political system is mobilizing against the Russian threat. European leaders also increasingly regard Putin as an unmitigated menace. As a counterweight to Russian expansionism, NATO’s role has never been more critical. However, the challenge facing Western policy toward Moscow is that, in parallel with the necessity of assertive responses to Putin’s hostile actions, the world needs Russian cooperation; particularly given Russia’s permanent UN Security Council seat. Nobody wants Russia to play a spoiling role in Korean diplomacy, or to continue blocking peace initiatives in Syria. Kim’s visit to Beijing further highlights the increasingly central role China must play in a Korea deal and other major geopolitical challenges.
We are hurtling toward the May 12 deadline, when Trump is expected to kill off the Iran nuclear deal. Tehran may retaliate by resuming uranium enrichment. However, this would be a risky step, making strikes against Iranian nuclear installations a credible prospect. Such maneuvers risk throwing attention back on the nuclear program at the expense of Tehran’s other nefarious activities in the region, while making Iran even more belligerent and defiant. Thus, if Trump has chosen to shoot the nuclear deal down in flames, he requires an iron-clad strategy to mitigate the fallout from this decision and aggressively contain Iran from here on.
Putin, Trump and Kim may criticize the constraints of international laws and do everything in their power to undermine them, yet they are ultimately compelled to resort to multilateral solutions for their own survival and for the management of global crises.
With all these major issues in play, we are guaranteed an eventful summer, particularly as each of these files will impact the others. For example, if the chemistry between Trump and Kim is disastrous and a Korean confrontation becomes inevitable, the US may be anxious not to push matters to the brink with Iran. Meanwhile, a confrontation between Iran, Israel and the US would leave Putin with tough decisions to make over whether to remain with his tactical allies in Syria, or retain good offices with Israel and act to curb Iranian expansionism.
The lesson for unilateralists in the White House and the Kremlin is that multilateral diplomacy is decisively back on the agenda. The West’s diplomatic rebuke to Putin wasn’t a British victory, but a collective one. The Korea and Iran issues over past decades have been classic examples of intensive multilateral heavy lifting. Even if these crises escalate into conflict, massive diplomatic activity will be required to pick up the pieces.
Trump, Bolton and Putin like to portray diplomacy as weak and ineffective. However, as the Syrian conflict attests, diplomacy only becomes impotent when it lacks muscular support at the highest levels. When unilateralists are in power, diatribes against diplomacy become self-fulfilling prophesies: They proclaim that the UN is weak, and then halt funding or block UN action with vetoes, foot-dragging and obstructionism. Few can boast a more impressive CV than Bolton in terms of neutralizing, sidelining and undermining the mechanisms of international justice.
Diplomacy isn’t sexy; most of the time it’s slow, tedious and pedantic. Yet ultimately diplomacy is necessary. When Trump attacked institutions like NATO and UNESCO, he merely reflected the instincts of a public who had little understanding of what such institutions do, thus presuming they were a waste of money. Trump famously chided the State Department that diplomacy toward North Korea was a waste of time — then agreed to Kim’s offer of talks. If Trump does rip up the Iran nuclear deal, he will need to rely heavily on broad diplomatic alliances to bring overwhelming pressure to bear on the Tehran regime.
Putin, Trump and Kim criticize the constraints imposed by the framework of international law, and do everything in their power to undermine these constraints. Yet for their own survival and for the management of global crises, they are ultimately compelled to resort to multilateral solutions.
The failures of the Obama years demonstrate that diplomacy that is not backed up by the prospect of punitive consequences is impotent and futile. However, brute force unmoored from the mechanisms of diplomacy and international law only leaves catastrophe in its wake.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.