Savir's corner: The limits of power and the power of diplomacy

As Benjamin Franklin once said: “There is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace.”

Lavrov Kerry370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lavrov Kerry370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
If poor 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.
Then there is a more important question – what does one do today with military victory? Historically, it was for the sake of empires, colonies and natural resources.
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.”
IT IS 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.
In 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 offer.
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 values.
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.
Many others have great difficulty adapting. They see their patriotism more fulfilled by military victory.
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.”
The 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 diplomacy.The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accord. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.