Syria and Broader Trends in International Diplomacy: Part 1, The United States

FreedomHouse via Flickr

FreedomHouse via Flickr

The agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September between Russia and the United States over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons is an interesting example of inter-state cooperation against the backdrop of international crisis. Although it looked as though Washington was going to opt for a military solution, the proposal to peacefully remove Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles by Moscow provided a diplomatic one. It came after many in the United States had called for swift and decisive military action against the Assad regime. However, US foreign policy hawks were arguably silenced by the proposed Russian deal because it removed the casus belli, or justification for war, for US intervention. Effectively, the Russian proposal shut down the militant attitude found amongst top Washington foreign policy makers like Secretary of State John Kerry.

If we are to look at this resolution from a “zero sum game” approach, does that lead us to believe that Russia has come out as the victor? Has Russia been able to keep the United States out of Syria, Russia’s long time ally with its international weight? In reviewing the relations between the United States and her allies on one hand and the Russian-led East on the other, we do see that it’s time to reassess Washington’s diplomatic position with nations like Russia and Iran, but not in the way that seems most apparent. In three parts, covering the position of the US, Russia and finally a composition of smaller states. including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, this series will try and uncover more about the shifting balance of power in international relations.

Before 14 September this year, the foreign policy course of the US seemed to point in a militant direction. Key policy makers in Washington were calling for varying degrees of military intervention because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Ranging from boots on the ground ( a proposal pushed prominently by Arizona Senator John McCain) to suggestions by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for limited air strikes. All proposals argued that a moral and normative line had been crossed and the US had to act. As John Kerry put it, “our sense of basic humanity was offended.” However, that wasn’t what the American public was calling for. Public opinion was in fact vehemently opposed to intervention in Syria in any and all of its forms. In a post-Iraq world, it would be foolish to dismiss the whims and wishes of the public. This was the first force that has shaped US foreign policy surrounding Syria: some level of public consent is essential for foreign policy decisions, especially in a democracy. The United States is war-weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, the global recession has led many to believe that war only brings economic downturn or is too expensive in the current economic climate, and the attempt at providing limited military support in Libya produced apparently underwhelming results. Since limited strikes, especially air strikes on Damascus, are seen to have little impact, the only way to solve the crisis militarily would be with a larger land intervention. As seen though, protests against this course of action in major US cities delayed Obama’s decision to put a vote to Congress. This attitude was shared in other Western nations like the UK, where Parliament voted against a possible intervention because of the drain it would cause on the British treasury and a lack of support from the general population. The citizens of Western states simply do not want to be dragged into another war.

On 14 September, the debate was altered with the deal between Russia and the United States for the removal of the chemical weapons within Syria. Initial reactions within the US were evidence of another recent trend in US foreign policy: the interest in creating a multilateral decision making process and ultimately a collective solution. The US has learnt that it must consider the interests of many different actors, that it must act multilaterally because the support of the international community or the lack thereof can have drastic impacts on the outcomes of foreign policy decisions. For example, it was the lack of support for the war in Iraq that began to undermine the image of the United States. The belief that the US could act as the policeman, the arbiter and the sole source of direction for the world hurt their ability to win the hearts and minds of those not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, China and even the United States. [1] It is because they needed to incorporate multiple actors into the decision making process. This is found in the shift in US foreign policy and most clearly with Obama’s call for the United Nations to act collectively on Syria. In his address on the 24th of September, Obama argued that it was now the time to show Assad that the United Nations still has the collective power to solve international disputes through diplomacy and collective pressure. He called on the United Nations to be that, nations united for the common purpose of peace. Obama decided to forego military action to try and push a Russian made diplomatic solution on the international community.

Oxfam International via Flickr

Oxfam International via Flickr

Altogether, the United States is beginning to recognize that soft power, the ability to influence nations with diplomacy, international presence, and ‘moral’ weight, is growing as a viable alternative to military and economic power. They have put this into practice in Syria and it’s wielding diplomatic success. Obama recognized that it was time for the United States to commit to a pivot in their foreign policy. Thus, they changed their course of action because of lack of consensus at both a domestic and international levels. It is possible to argue that the US would have changed course even without the chemical weapons deal because of these forces; This is a post-Iraq world, and the United States is beginning to realize that it cannot afford to act alone anymore. It is, however, in no way a world where the United States is powerless, just the recognition that states have limitations to how they can control international politics, however big they might be.

If we recognize that there was this drastic shift in US foreign policy, from militant action in most international crises to seeking diplomatic solutions, because it lacked support then what does that say about this situation being a Russian success? Can we really attribute the prevention of US intervention to Russian diplomatic and international power? In the next article in the series, an examination of the Russian diplomatic position will continue the argument that a lack of US intervention in Syria has very little to do with Russia’s geopolitical situation.


[1]Robert Satloff (2004). The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror: Essays on U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East. Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.