In a recent editorial entitled, ‘Obama, Syria and a world rearranging itself,’ we suggested in focusing on events in the Middle East, that changes were taking place in countries’ perceptions of each other that were inducing the major powers, and specifically the United States, to relook at their relations to each other. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, attempting a repeat of his country’s strong advocacy of, and participation in Libya two years ago, found his attempt to mount a similar initiative in relation to Syria stymied by a contrary opinion of his own parliament.
Then, President Obama trying to follow suit, found his Senate taking a stance not dissimilar from Cameron, and giving strong hints that they would not support an American intervention against the Syrian government. And the US has felt constrained to rely on an initiative from President Putin in Russia suggesting the possibility of a diplomatic, rather than a military intervention, to resolve the civil war there.
For some time now, the United States had been minimizing the strength of Russia, and its legitimacy for diplomatic intervention, casting Putin as a kind of autocrat moving Russia in a reverse direction from democratic behaviour acceptable in the Western world. For the US he seems to have been perceived as therefore not having the legitimacy to make initiatives towards the resolution of difficulties in various part of the world.
But President Obama himself has found his own country embroiled in difficulty as one of the effects of the Snowden leakages showed the US to be deeply involved in espionage utilising cyberspace as the arena from which to operate, the specific target being, on this occasion, Brazil, the leading political actor in Latin America.
The discovery raised the issue of whether the United States, in taking such action, had lost the superiority of legitimacy that it has always claimed over Russia, or the Soviet Union of the past, in such matters. For the US has been prone to be critical of Russian attempts at manipulation in neighbouring states previously under its formal jurisdiction. And the spectacle of President Rousseff of Brazil denouncing the United States to an assembled gathering of leaders of states at the General Assembly, could hardly have been helpful to President Obama.
This perception of the US has followed a set of events in which President Putin has been widely seen in some areas of the world, as having seized the initiative from Obama and the United States on the Syrian issue. No more strongly has this been felt than in Israel, almost visibly perceived as favouring, along with European NATO powers like Britain and France, a military rather than diplomatic intervention in Syria.
Putin’s initiative, which has led to a new round of diplomatic negotiations, closely involving consultation with Syria’s Assad, and a consequent atmosphere of negotiation and conciliation involving the specific participation and agreement of Assad in Syria, has also now had another effect. It has allowed the government of Iran, supportive up to now of Assad, to initiate diplomatic moves towards itself becoming an acceptable player in any process leading to the resolution of the Syrian issue, and then to wider concerns of the world community relating to the evolution of Middle East affairs.
Obviously, as part of a resolution to the Syrian issue and the participation of Iran in it, no matter what attempts are presently made to minimize any suggestion of this, the Iranians themselves have now taken the opportunity to initiate a process of resolution of their own issues with the United States.
Surprisingly, the Iranians have made it look as if the United States is more anxious than itself to arrange a normalisation of relations. The spectacle of President Obama attempting to arrange a handshake with the Iranian President, and the latter avoiding it, with Obama then taking the initiative of a phone call to President Rouhani, can hardly have gone down well in US public opinion.
It may be, of course, and indeed it probably is the case, that President Obama given his background, has a less defensive attitude than some leading American politicians, and is not so much concerned with alleged dents to America’s prestige than many other US policymakers. He did, after all, come into office promising a more outward looking and less defensive posture for a United States that, in his view should be relying less on military adventures and more on diplomatic interventions.
In that case, it will be argued by advocates of the President, that he has a more realistic perception than previous recent Republican presidents in particular, and, as indicated in his famous Arab Spring address in Egypt, actually favours an elevation of the status of major countries in the various regions of the world.
In addition, the continuation of turmoil in Iraq, together with a growing perception that a mass of economic aid to Egypt has not advanced any stable process of democracy there, has probably induced a reinforcement of the belief which Obama seemed to come to the presidency with, that it is not the business of the United States to solve all the problems of oppression and autocracy in the world. His half-hearted support for the European determination to go after Gaddafi suggested this.
Current events in Syria suggest that there are enough senior politicians still in play in the United States, Senator John McCain for one, if his words on the Syrian situation are to be believed, to doubt the President’s version of the future. And really, whether players like the Iranian leadership will have sufficient stability on their own turf to be able to make itself a legitimate player on what we can call Obama’s turf is left to be seen, and is obviously being exploited by his critics.
Of course, the McCains of this world believe that that very turf is being lost as a result of what they seem to feel is a too conciliatory diplomacy towards countries like Iran. They resist any suggestion that as emerging countries and existing major powers come to terms with each other, it is a global diplomacy – in effect the necessary participation of others in the arena of the United Nations ‒ that is preferable as the central arena of the international diplomacy whether of war and peace negotiations, or negotiations towards a more sustainable world that balances the prospects of survival for both strong and weak.