US’ 30 years from diplomatic primacy to paralysis
Thirty years ago this week, the US’ power was at its zenith, militarily and diplomatically. On Jan. 17, 1991, it launched the war to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, and with it drove away doubts about America’s commitment to world peace. In the lead-up to that date, the US was able to build an international coalition of 35 countries and make a convincing case for military action. US diplomats secured support for the war from the UN Security Council, where even China and the Soviet Union went along.
In his memoir “The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World,” veteran US diplomat William J. Burns recalled how President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker presided over a new world order with very little competition from other powers. The US was winning the Cold War, as the Soviet Union was in its last days, while Germany and Europe were reunited. According to Burns, “history seemed to flow inexorably in America’s direction.”
President-elect Joe Biden has now tapped Burns to become his CIA director, where he will be dealing with a much less friendly world order. Watching events unfold in Washington these days, it is difficult not to see the contrast between America then and now. The US capital looks to be under siege by right-wing extremists and the security forces are scrambling to secure the inauguration of the new president.
For the rest of the world, the Jan. 6 attack on the US Congress represented the nadir of American power, when a constitutionally ordered process to ratify the results of November’s presidential election was disrupted and delayed by an armed gang apparently intent on harming lawmakers.
The chain of events in Washington since the election has damaged America’s standing in the world. US rivals and adversaries are already testing the resolve of the new administration. Iran, for example, has resumed its harassment of shipping in the Gulf by hijacking a South Korean ship, and Tehran’s proxies have also intensified their malign activities in the region. The Houthis of Yemen have escalated their attacks on Saudi civilian targets and, on Dec. 30, launched an attack on Aden airport targeting the newly formed government of Yemen upon its arrival to the country. The ministers barely escaped, but scores of innocent bystanders were killed or wounded.
Iran has also doubled down on its breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It last week announced that it would be taking steps toward producing uranium metal, in direct violation of the nuclear deal. The revelation came just days after it resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent purity at the underground Fordow facility — another stark violation of the JCPOA, which limits uranium enrichment to no more than 3.67 percent until 2030. The foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK on Saturday condemned Iran’s JCPOA breaches, saying: “The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian added: “Iran — and I say this clearly — is in the process of acquiring nuclear military capacity.”
In Iraq, where thousands of US and allied troops died and hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on stabilization efforts, Iran-allied militias have increased their attempts to destabilize the country and strengthen Iran’s hold in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections later this year. To make matters worse, the rehabilitation of areas liberated from Daesh has been extremely slow, allowing the terrorist outfit to regroup and resurge. The funds committed to Iraqi reconstruction at the international conference held in Kuwait in February 2018 remain largely unspent, in part because US leadership of that effort has receded.
In Syria, the Assad regime is celebrating its victory over its own people, thanks in part to Iranian and Russian support, as the US and its allies are squeezed into a small pocket in the northeast of the country. Iran’s dream of building a corridor from Iran to Lebanon appears to be closer to fulfillment than ever.
Lebanon, a long-time close US partner, is being abandoned to economic ruin and political paralysis, led by Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ main regional proxy, and its partners.
The eastern Mediterranean region has also descended into chaos, with a standoff between NATO allies Greece and Turkey — a logjam that has drawn in other regional US partners. In the old days, US allies and partners would have heeded its advice to sit at the negotiation table to resolve their disputes.
The chain of events in Washington since the election has damaged America’s standing in the world.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis — the mother of all regional problems — is nowhere near resolution, thanks in part to unilateral steps, condoned if not encouraged by the US, which have made a difficult situation worse and increased the potential for prolonging the conflict. As Burns pointed out in his memoirs, in the old days of 1991, Israelis and Palestinians “sat down together, against their instincts, because we asked, at a moment when well-framed US requests were not ignored. It marked a time of uncontested American primacy.”
In the 30 years since those days, a lot has happened to weaken that primacy — some of it America’s own doing — until it reached the abyss epitomized by this month’s violation of the US’ seat of power in Washington.
To undo the damage, the new administration will need to urgently engage the rest of the world to reassure allies and partners and deter adversaries. In 1991, muscular diplomacy was how the US worked to safeguard peace and security. Thirty years later, there is no alternative to that tool to restore faith in a rules-based international system in war and peace, as well as in guiding the global recovery from the twin evils of the coronavirus disease and its related economic recession.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1