Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 27 September – 4 October 2013

Conflicts Forum

In a recent article, Graham Fuller, a former vice-chair of the US National Intelligence Council speculated that “it is possible that President Obama – without articulating it, perhaps without fully intending it – may have strayed into the radical re-forging of American foreign policy?”. Fuller was referring to the sudden turnabout, whereby “bombs were about to fall on Syria … and suddenly we receive accounts of civil exchanges between the American and Iranian Presidents” – adding that a linked body of enshrined foreign policy axioms may be quietly unraveling: American exceptionalism, American unilateralism and America as architect of the ‘global order’.

In fact, Fuller included two others in his list of possibly unraveling axioms: “America as world policeman, moral commentator, and global hegemon” [CF’s emphasis]. These latter are particular interesting because they perhaps explain more about why such an important change may be occurring. These latter perhaps have become the drivers for change – rather than simply standing as some of the consequences to change.  It may also suggest that the shift may not be as ‘inadvertent’ as supposed.  Fuller hints at this.  What became so apparent in respect to Syria was the buckling of the US ‘system’ in the face of the prospect of even limited intervention in Syria.  The American public and Congress precisely walked-back from being policeman, moral arbitrator for Middle East societies, and from the role of global hegemon. The public, the pollsters concluded, were giving the ‘thumbs-down’ to this entire mission, this narrative of America’s raison-être, as much as just saying “no” to dropping bombs on Damascus.  What Fuller is suggesting is that Obama was not showing weakness, but “actually wisdom” in recognizing that the US cannot simply persist, as though uni-polarism is not visibly eroding in the face of increasing push-back, and that moral disarray at home has been undermining the American public’s confidence and appetite for pronouncing morally on each and every conflict in the world.

In terms of foreign policy, the shift is more directly apparent (the outreach to Iran), but the implications for the evolution of the international order are just as important — if not more important.

In terms of the foreign policy shift on Iran, it may appear that this has come about ‘off the back’ of the Syria chemical weapons agreement with Russia, and the new political direction emanating out of Iran.  But this shift too, may have deeper roots in how the US now directly perceives its national interests – even if it is not politically acceptable yet to articulate these too publicly.  The very recently retired number two at the CIA gave an interviewin which he said explicitly that whilst not a direct threat to the US at this moment (being still a regional threat), he viewed the rising jihadist threat in Syria as being the number one potential threat to the US in the longer term (see here). What this means is that a common objective – a common goal – is opening out between Iran and the US: which is the threat mounting out from Sunni extremist, (Takfiri) movements in Syria and the region. There have been signs for some time that in certain quarters of the US system, it has been clearly recognized that the ineffective and largely illusory Free Syria Army and the SNC’s armed wing, the Syrian Military Council, are incapable of ‘taking-down’ the jihadist movements in Syria.  The only force capable of doing this (and is actually ‘doing it’ now) is the Syrian Army (with some quite limited and specific help from Hizbullah and Iran).  There is here also, a US interest that intersects with those of Russia (which sees Syria as the ‘front line’ that must be won – if a new phase of Islamic extremism and expansion is to be stopped).  Iran can help in this. In short, it may be that US hostility to the rise of Sunni extremism in Syria and elsewhere represents now a common cause with Tehran – that trumps any common interests that the US may have shared with the Gulf states – particularly as the US loses its dependence on Middle East oil, and in view of the equivocal and somewhat dubious relationship Gulf states have with these extremist movements.  US interests are in metamorphosis.

In terms of the international order, Fuller suggests that as unilateralism fades, Obama effectively is initiating a new recognition that it will henceforth have to deal with the legitimate concerns and interests of other states – “snapping the comfortable certainty that American interests are a ‘universal good’”.

To understand the wider implications of this seemingly unremarkable shift, we have to understand how the international order has been evolving:  It is precisely this subsequent evolution that makes Obama’s recognition potentially so significant. After the last European War (WWII), an international order – and its concomitant legal framework – was created through the consent of independent, sovereign states. This was what international lawyers termed a ‘positivist’ approach to the global order, whereby the rules of international relations (international law) are created through the consent of independent sovereign states, and are to be interpreted narrowly.

But this understanding has been at odds with the model more recently favoured by America and some European states (particularly Britain and France), which rather emphasizes a policy, or results-oriented, view of the international order. In this view, what matters in responding to certain identified international challenges is the formulation of goals or hoped-for ‘results’ and not international law per se, but the new goals or mission that surpasses them. This approach also ascribes a special role to the most powerful states in interpreting how these ‘aims’ should be realized – that is to say, ascribing the decisions to those with the resources, and especially the willingness to act, in order to bring about a desired ‘result’.

Out of this ‘goals orientated’ approach has emerged, inter alia, what amounts effectively to an unilateral revision of the NPT, by which the assertion of a prior ‘goal’ of non-proliferation has been held to trump the NPT’s laws concerning each signatory state’s right to peaceful enrichment.  It has further been asserted that in maintaining this goal, only the ‘weapons states’ and others with nuclear industries should decide which non-weapons states would be allowed to possess fuel cycle technologies. Similarly, the doctrine of the ‘right to protect’ (R2P) has been held to constitute an aim that trumps national sovereignties.  Just to be clear, and contrary to what is often suggested, there are not two bodies of (competing) law: that of classical international law and that of a new human rights/humanitarian’ formulation. The latter is basically no more than a controversial ‘opinion’ advanced by certain states, lawyers, policy-makers and think-tanks. None of these changes has been negotiated with sovereign states, and therefore is held by many to be a unilateral breach of the original ‘contract’.

What has been happening in the context of Syria has been a concerted struggle led by Russia, China and certain BRICS countries to haul the international order away from its unilateral ‘aims and results’ orientation, back to the idea of a structure of international relationships grounded in sovereign consent and in the primacy of international law.  It is this ambition, to which Sergei Lavrov repeatedly has been referring when he has talked about the Syria outcome being so key to defining of the future of the international order – and how future conflicts would be solved.  And it seems to have had some success. The Russian aim was to put a stop to western states moving issues off the UN and international law balance sheet, and onto the books of ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’.  It seems that President Obama now quietly is moving the US towards acknowledging the reality of the new global era – the inevitability of it having to pay greater heed to working with the consent of other sovereign states in the future, rather than act alone, as the unipolar power.

Not only does this tentative ‘return’ to sovereign consent place a question mark over R2P (since the necessary yielding up of state sovereignty to R2P objectives has never been defined; or indeed, ever accepted by sovereign states collectively), but Washington’s apparent readiness now to contemplate peaceful Iranian enrichment (albeit monitored and assured), can be seen to be consistent with this new US orientation:  It meshes with the original principles that originally underlay the NPT.  It thus may be expected to enjoy wider global support, and a better prospect of bearing fruit.  Obviously, connected to this, is the ‘reality’ that the very basis for the supra-NPT, non-proliferation ‘aim’ would be undercut by the twin events of Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons stocks, and Iran’s disavowal of nuclear weapons.  It would become even more contentious as a an ‘aim’, surpassing all NPT rights, were this to leave Israel alone in the Middle East as the possessor of WMD, and yet unaccounted for.

The impact of this re-orientation – if it be pursued  – will be myriad. Israel will need to re-consider many things: Gulf states will need to re-configure their relations with Iran – and ultimately with Syria; and Europe its relationship with the Gulf. For, if the American ‘system’ stalled over Syria, and brought an unanticipated and sudden end to the Carter doctrine (effectively ending the US umbrella for Gulf states), why now should Gulf states buy all those expensive weapons to rust in the desert?  They were never much more down payment for an umbrella that seems just to have been furled, and put away?


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