A crisis of modern diplomacy

The case of Syria stands a high chance of becoming another example of the failure of modern diplomacy.

Ban Ki-moon at UN Human Rights Council 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
Ban Ki-moon at UN Human Rights Council 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
On August 2, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the resignation of Kofi Annan, who according to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev represented “the last chance” for Syria, from the post of joint special envoy. Two weeks later it became officially known that Lakhdar Brahimi, a former UN envoy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and South Africa, would replace him. However, the failure of Annan’s mission has, once again, demonstrated the futility of contemporary diplomacy.
On February 23, Annan, a high-profile international diplomat and Nobel peace laureate who had also served as UN secretary-general was appointed as joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria. Although a number of experts were quite skeptical about his mission from the very beginning, he made tremendous efforts to maintain a cease-fire between the parties and presented a six-point peace plan according to which both the Syrian government and opposition were to work with the UN envoy “to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.”
The plan also implied the timely provision of humanitarian assistance and freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists.
To ensure support from non-regional actors, along with talks in Damascus, Annan flew to Moscow and Tehran, where he was given to understand that both Russia and Iran would support his peace plan. However, something went wrong in Syria itself.
Despite the cease-fire agreement of April 12, there were several violations by both sides and conflict erupted with renewed force, casting doubt on all Annan’s efforts.
IF WE look at the development of international relations in the recent past, we see that diplomacy as an important conflict resolution tool did not become more relevant in the post-Cold War era. The number of conflicts increased, and their nature changed, widening the range of issues diplomacy had to take into account. By the end of the Cold War, the international political environment had experienced great changes. As one expert writes, “the era of negotiations that centered exclusively on issues of security or borders was gone.”
This is not to say that security issues completely faded into the background. As contemporary international relations demonstrate, our world has become less predictable, and security issues still shape international agendas. Rather, the issue of security has gained a more comprehensive and universal character.
Modern diplomats have to deal with a complex agenda and such multidimensional issues as, for example, economic development and environmental degradation.
Although on the most recent issues there has been some progress, on issues relating to traditional security not much has changed.
A striking example are the negotiations in the framework of the UN Security Council, where Cold War-style bloc thinking can still be observed; the Syrian case is not unique in this in this regard.
In Libya, when the clashes between the Gaddafi government and insurgents threatened to escalate into a full-scale civil war, negotiations were held within the UN Security Council, as well as between the parties to the conflict, with the assistance of the representatives of the Organization of African States. Consensus was reached in the Security Council, establishing “a no-fly zone” that led to a military solution of the conflict. This gave rise to much talk about misinterpretation of Security Council resolutions, and to calls to return to negotiations by Russian diplomats. Previously, lack of diplomatic effort led to an armed conflict in Iraq.
Another prominent example of modern diplomacy’s near-powerlessness is in the sphere of non-proliferation. Crisis situations have arisen regarding the nuclear programs of the Islamic Republic of Iran and The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In the first case, despite the fact that the negotiating parties (six world powers and Iran) are not yet ready “to let the recently relaunched diplomatic process collapse,” there have been increasing calls for a military solution. In the latter, some analysts remain skeptical about the possibility North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program even in the light of the February announcement it would suspend its enrichment activities.
The above-mentioned examples go to show that diplomacy in our days is in deep crisis. Despite commitment to the diplomatic settlement of disputes, some states continue to rely on their military capabilities. At the same time, further ignoring of diplomatic methods could give “reverse effect” and cause much trouble to the international security system by making it more vulnerable and less safe.
The time has come to realize that diplomacy is the only key to passing from zero-sum game concepts to one based on common interests and compromise. Unless this is done, the whole system of international relations would permanently be under threat.
The case of Syria is another wake-up call for the international community, signaling that it is time to rethink the future of international relations and the role of diplomacy in it. The 21st century has brought with it an unprecedented number of opportunities for international diplomacy and, at the same time, a number of challenges. How diplomacy will advance to maximize the first and solve the second depends on the future of the world order.
Returning to the situation in Syria, it should be noted that Annan still believes it possible to prevent a bleak scenario.
According to him this would require “courage and leadership, most of all from the permanent members of the Security Council.” In other words, as long as consensus between the main non-regional actors is not achieved, which is more unlikely to happen with each passing day, the case of Syria stands a high chance of becoming another example of the failure of modern diplomacy.
The writer is a researcher at the Center for Political Studies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.