The catastrophic death of Western diplomacy
The new American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is a rather tragic figure. Since he came into the job, he and his colleagues have been sent round the world mopping up after Trump’s inflammatory pronouncements; appeasing the Europeans after threats to ax NATO and conciliating the Mexicans after branding them criminals and rapists and demanding they pay for Trump’s ill-omened wall.
One thing that Tillerson has not been doing is sitting in on Trump’s meetings with world leaders, or getting involved in policy-making; just one example being the abandonment of a commitment to a two-state solution for Palestine. He is further undermined by dozens of his staff being fired, while choices for his own deputies are vetoed. Given the fact that Tillerson has zero diplomatic experience, the absence of a strong team behind him contributes to plunging morale, evidenced by continual leaks and the readiness of over a thousand staff to sign a document decrying Trump’s Muslim ban attempts.
Trump’s nativist impatience with multilateral institutions represents an abandonment of traditional diplomacy. Although Trump is in many ways the anti-Obama, both leaders share a desire to avoid overseas entanglements. However, Trump’s pledge for the “biggest ever” build-up in US forces shows readiness to use raw power when he desires.
These isolationist tendencies mirror the retreat of “European powers” from muscular diplomacy. Brexit Britain with Boris Johnson as foreign secretary displays a haughty reluctance to get its hand dirty. A significant turning point was the 2013 British Parliament vote against involvement in Syria, a decision which was instrumental in convincing Obama not to police his own red lines over chemical weapons in Syria.
Europe obsesses over mass immigration while doing little to address the underlying causes of refugee crises. Isolationism is unsustainable: When Western nations do not go to the crisis zones, the crisis zones come to them. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council remains paralyzed on all the issues which matter.
Fragile states such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen require intense efforts to support good governance and marginalize anti-state forces. Without this, the result is anarchy. Pariah states are meanwhile gleefully expanding their influence. Iran and Russia have been quick to fill the vacuum inside weak states. We thought we had moved beyond the Cold War choice between White House or Kremlin; however, a viable global framework is required when ailing superpowers no longer have the will or ability to act.
The international community is suffering from a crisis of identity. The travails of the post-9/11 era have taught us that that both unilateral interventionism and multilateral impotence are not viable models for global security. Between ham-fisted interventionism and irresponsible isolationism, is there a middle way?
The international community is suffering from a crisis of identity. The travails of the post-9/11 era have taught us that that both unilateral interventionism and multilateral impotence are not viable models for global security.
We cannot afford to sit back until states implode and the world is flooded with desperate refugees. When we refuse to invest millions of dollars in conflict prevention, the inevitable result is wasting billions dealing with state failure and regional catastrophe later on.
It is easy to be wise in retrospect. It is futile to argue that intensive efforts a decade ago in Yemen could have prevented state failure. Efforts in Iraq after 2008 to capitalize on security gains could have spared us from Daesh. And if only NATO states had followed up on their intervention in Libya...
In 2011 attention was proudly focused on the creation of the world’s youngest state — South Sudan. Today, the media scarcely notices as this nation slides into civil war. How many more failed experiments will we require to realize that installing a government and leaving them to get on with it is not a recipe for viable statehood?
We welcome the more assertive role of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The disappearance of Western diplomacy makes it a priority that states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan take the lead in the region, while supporting reform of multilateral institutions; the catastrophic failures of Syria must not repeat themselves.
At its most effective, the EU was able to mobilize sophisticated initiatives on global challenges, moderating the US role and bringing together a diverse range of international actors. The existential crises facing the EU’s existence today thus weaken the international community. We need an engaged and united Europe which has shut the door firmly on its worst populist, isolationist and far-right tendencies.
We have never been in more need of the UN Security Council — but not a body reduced to impotence by a single veto. When powerful states block multilateral action in pursuit of narrow objectives, we all lose.
The death of Western diplomacy leaves behind a broken and dysfunctional global system. As aging and declining powers surrender their traditional roles, we require vigorous and far-sighted nations to step into the breach and conceive a new global security apparatus. The fragmented and failed states all around us are testimony enough that we can put this off no longer.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.