There were many in the world, and definitely in Israel, who would liked to have
seen US President Barack Obama these days wearing a leather jacket announcing
the launch of a military strike on Syria in retaliation to its criminal use of
chemical weapons – the commander-in-chief deploying state-of-the art modern
missiles and aircraft to hit the infrastructure of Syria’s army, and hopefully
proclaiming three days later that the mission had been accomplished. Obama took
the whole world by surprise when he conditioned the decision for a military
strike on congressional approval, and even more so when he agreed to seriously
negotiate a Russian-orchestrated political compromise to place the chemical
weapons under international inspection.
To many observers, Obama seemed
confused and inconsistent. In reality, he taught the world an important lesson
as to the nature of today’s international system, and how national and
international goals can be achieved. The world, very much due to the
technological and information revolutions, is a transformed political system.
Its citizens are better informed and more interconnected than ever. Government
finds it harder to rule over their constituencies, be it in more or less
democratic countries. With the weakening of government and the empowerment of
the citizen, the nature of international relations has been profoundly altered.
People rebel and protest against their leaders when they don’t provide a fair
and decent living – be it in “occupy Wall Street” or “liberate Tahrir.” People
will not march to the command of their governments, not to take unfair
unemployment nor to go to useless wars.
Not only the balance between a
strong government and the weak governed has changed, but also the relations
between strong countries and weak ones. America’s bastion of power was hit on
September 11 by stoneage mentality terrorists from ancient caves in Afghanistan.
It took revenge against two countries, deploying the mightiest army in the world
against barely existing armies, and failed in both places to achieve its goal of
defeating terror and anarchy. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan did not
surrender or raise exaggerated expectations for an American economic savior. The
United States discovered the limitations of power. The same can be said of
Russia in Chechnya or of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon.
We need to ask
ourselves – what are the causes of the limitation of power, and what are its
consequences for diplomacy? In today’s world, for the first time, it is often
the weak and poor countries that pose a threat to international peace, due to
the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism and the proliferation of conventional
and non conventional weapons. The motivation to use lethal weapons is today more
important than the capacity to use them. North Korea is one of the poorest
countries in the world and its population suffers from severe economic hardship
and hunger; and yet its dictatorial regime can galvanize its people for military
adventures, with nuclear and ballistic capacities.
Gaza, an impoverished,
overpopulated, small strip of land is perceived by Israel, with its mighty IDF,
as a threat. The last round of violent confrontation between the two ended in a
draw, while in 1967 it took Israel only six days to conquer not only Gaza, but
also the whole Sinai desert, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, destroying all
Arab enemy armies.
TODAY WE witness a lethal combination of impoverished
and backward societies, state-of-the-art armament and the motivation to fight
based on deep economic frustration. The mightiest armies have become incapable
of winning in battle against the weakest of countries. Many of the poorer
countries also host terrorist groups and armed militias, exploiting the poor and
fanatically determined to harm the West.
In addition, the relative share
of power that the army holds as a component of a country’s strength has
dramatically diminished. Japan and Germany, the two losers of World War II, are
cases in point, with great economic might but small military power – and yet
they deter potential enemies by their mere economic clout.
countries have a greater motivation to exercise power as they have little to
lose, the contrary is true for wealthy countries. In the great economies, the
last thing on the mind of societies is to go to war. This limits the maneuvering
room of leaders to opt for military action, as was the case now with Obama and
Cameron. This is even further exacerbated by the fact that wars are won today
more on the television screen than in the battlefield. Images of civilian
victims in real-time sway public opinion in favor of the underdog and against
the mighty. Media considerations are now part of the decision-making process in
war, limiting their offensive options.
International public opinion
objects to the killing of innocent civilians all over the world and can severely
damage a country’s international stature and image. In general, international
opinion is less impressed by war or military victories. If in the past the
heroes of society were war heroes, today it is more the global icons that also
contribute to a better world. A Hollywood star like George Clooney, who is
active in Darfur, is more popular than any four-star general.
is a more important question – what does one do today with military victory?
Historically, it was for the sake of empires, colonies and natural
In the post-colonial period, victory is virtually impossible
given the new equation of potential mutual destruction, and in most cases it
does not serve the winner. Israel’s great victory in 1967, in a war of
selfdefense, turned into a curse, as we were left with the rule of over three
million Palestinians, who, over the years gained the world’s support on our
account. As the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said: “Once you hear the
details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from defeat.”
diplomacy by peaceful means that can achieve important goals at a time when the
ability to use power is limited. In war there is a winner and a loser, or rather
two losers; in good diplomacy all sides win.
Diplomacy is the art of
reconciling among different interests, and creating new structures of common
interest. Post-World War II Europe is one of the best cases of good diplomacy,
especially in the new structures that were put in place by mainly French and
German diplomats. The strength of European diplomacy was in its regional
institution-building – from the pact of coal and steel in 1951, to the creation
of the European community and European Union. The diversity of European
institutions created major joint economic and social systems and policies that,
to a large degree, continue to sustain the peace and stability of Europe after
centuries of wars. It is a prime example of the power of diplomacy.
war, armies speak; in diplomacy, a country can bring to bear other attributes
such as economic power, cultural expression, scientific advances, youth
programs, Societies can express themselves through the best they have to
Diplomacy is not only limited to the strength of each nation, but
can also express universal values.
Therefore, the language of diplomacy
can be a common language. The respect for human rights and freedoms transcends
borders; so does the desire for peace. Israel’s main strength in relation to the
United States is not the IDF, but the fact that we share democratic
Diplomacy, above all, is the creative attempt to achieve goals by
peaceful means. It therefore complies with the good of society, and not with the
triumph of the nation. In the modern diplomacy era, societies must not only be
listened to by the leaders, but also, should partake in the process which is
defined as public diplomacy. Obama’s decision to seek a diplomatic solution to
the Syrian chemical arms attack and arsenal stemmed also from his being
attentive to American public opinion.
The highest form of diplomacy is
peacemaking. As it happens between enemies, it is a very challenging and
daunting task. It demands mutual compromises leading to mutual gains. The
Palestinians know today that the independent state they aspire to can be
achieved only by peaceful means, in a negotiated settlement with Israel and
through American mediation.
In the Syrian crisis, Obama has both learned
and and has taught a lesson in adapting to today’s world.
have great difficulty adapting. They see their patriotism more fulfilled by
This is a false sense of patriotism, so prevalent in
our country. Imperfect peace always outweighs perfect war. As Benjamin Franklin
once said: “There is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace.”
agreement between the US and Russia is precisely an expression of the limits of
power and the strength of diplomacy. Will it be perfectly implemented? Probably
not. But it will place Syrian chemical weapons under international inspection
for the sake of their abolition, and will serve as an international deterrent
for the Syrians not to use chemical weapons again. It will also most likely lead
to a Geneva II Conference with all parties in Syria, gradually leading to a
diplomatic solution to the bloody conflict in Syria, possibly splitting it into
two spheres of ethnic and international influence. Furthermore, American-Russian
relations are likely to improve, leading also to collective pressure and
diplomacy on Iran. Improved American-Russian relations and coordination will
affect collective diplomacy internationally and will reinstate the UN Security
Council as a more effective decision-making tool. All this would not have come
about had Obama not realized the limitations of power and the power of
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and
served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accord. Barbara Hurwitz edited