Well the debate, discussion, dialogue – call it what you will – among the international relations experts and pundits began with the assertion by Walter Russell Meade and others over the return of geopolitics. This debate has grown since with the rising tide of chaos in the international system – the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, now Gaza – the Ukraine, Afghanistan, the rising tensions in the South and East China Seas. It has become – especially for experts from the US – a full scale (re)examination of US leadership. As noted by Peter Baker in the NYT:
It’s a very tangled mess,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Mr. Obama and now president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group. “You name it, the world is aflame. Foreign policy is always complicated. We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere. It makes it hard for governments to cope with that.
Many experts, politicians and former officials, have criticized the tenor, or the substance, or both of President Obama’s leadership. As Richard Haass, the President of the Council of Foreign Relations reflected, the clarity of relations of the Cold War has dissipated:
So what you have are relationships where you may cooperate with certain countries on certain issues on certain days of the week, while on other issues on other days of the week, you may compete or simply go your own way,
It is a complex leadership context – not simple like the good old days of the Cold War. And in the face of the ‘world aflame’, what must US leadership become. Some argue that the US needs to take a more direct role in the Middle East, or in the Ukraine. But then there is the advice of other experts – say former National Security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that suggests the exact opposite, at least with respect to the Middle East. In a wide-ranging interview with David Rothkopf of the FP, Brzezinski suggested that the US not press forward:
But in the larger sense, what I would say is this: I think the whole region now, in terms of the sectarian impulses and sectarian intolerance, is not a place in which America ought to try to be preeminent [Emphasis Added]. I think we ought to pursue a policy in which we recognize the fact that the problems there are likely to persist and escalate and spread more widely. The two countries that will be most affected by these developments over time are China and Russia — because of their regional interests, vulnerabilities to terrorism, and strategic interests in global energy markets.
Some then at least in the Middle East the use needs to manage differently. It is evident from an examination of the full interview that Brzezinski is thinking in terms of some kind of major-power collaborative mechanism, which David Rothkopf, the interviewer suggests does not really exist currently. And Brzezinski replies in the following way:
Well, the Russians have damaged themselves enormously by their invasion of Crimea and their actions in Ukraine and that makes their ability to undertake any such role more difficult. Also, they are — and we have to face this, and they have to face this — much weaker. It’s really us and the Chinese.
As Rothkopf carries this line of inquiry forward:
Rothkopf: So like it or not, we’re moving into a world of G-2 plus.
Brzezinski: Unstated. Yes
For Brzezinski the operational way forward is clear. To build, that is put in place, the appropriate multilateral measures and then institutions, he urges that the US-China build a better bilateral relationship. As Brzezinski suggests the current relationship “is not stable and is not guided by a genuine recognition by both sides of our respective interests in working together …”.
Is this possible? First the US can establish a G-2 plus, according to Brzezinski (I think the plus suggests that at some point in time the EU may in fact step up, and possibly others) such a collaboration because there is no ideological divide between the US and China, unlike the unfulfilled collaboration with the Soviet Union, or even further back with Hitler’s Germany. Brzezinski obviously believes that such a collaboration is possible, though he is cognizant that it cannot be visibly such a great power condominium. Others, and particularly the Chinese will not accept such a visible great power institution. As Brzezinski concludes:
And we have to face the fact that probably for the rest of our lifetimes — unless things go to hell, which would be even worse — the United States and China are fated to collaborate if the world is to have a system that is effective. And on both sides there is real opposition to that — institutional, traditional, philosophical, and to some extent just human.
That’s fine but is it possible. It is but probably it is more difficult that suggested by the former National Security advisor. First, and contrary to David Rothkopf’s thinking, there already is the multilateral institution. Rothkopf refuses to accept for the time being the G20 is the multilateral diplomatic setting. Our friends from Brookings Bruce Jones and Thomas Wright acknowledge the G20 as THE place to act. Part of the problem is that the US fails to be attracted to any particular setting. So the G20 if it works, the G7 if it works, whatever. But the US will have to accept that the G20 is the current game and more consistently work it.
The current global summitry gatherings have the added bonus of holding a host of settings. So there are clubs galore for the US to massage, whether the bilateral US-China one through the S&ED, the G7, BRICS, or the G20. It bears repeating that the nonsense of disinviting the Russians to the G20 Summit is just that — nonsense. In concert diplomacy you need all the effective actors and you need to identify and utilize national interests to advance the agenda.
The greater concern possibly, however, is to determine if the US has the capacity to manage concert diplomacy. The US certainly can throw around its weight, particularly military weight, but the difficulties of moving the collaborative actors forward remains a question mark. It is not just the adequacy of diplomatic/political leadership but the hobbling effect of US politics. The most recent example is IMF reform so deftly handled by US officials only to come apart with Congress.
The road ahead is arduous and requires continuous political effort. Note how Brzezinski describes policy collaboration in the Middle East:
… and then, in the transcendental level, with China as a kind of co-equal stakeholder – a vague stakeholder, with the stakes never being precisely defined, in some residual global stability; with the Russians, once past their current complication with the Europeans, a potential ally; with India and Japan as potential second-level players; and with both we and the Chinese accepting our special preeminence, theirs on the Asian mainland, ours in the Western Hemisphere and Europe, and also in a special relationship with Japan. And that’s the best we can do, and I think we can operate on that basis in the course of this century. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be dangerous and destructive, but I don’t think we’re sliding to a world war. I think we’re sliding in an era of great confusion and prevailing chaos.
It is not at all clear that the US can manage – more drive – this collaboration.
Image Credit: abc7news.com