16th April 2013
The narcissism of small differences is not usually associated with great-power politics. The pathology of turning minor disputes into major divisions between otherwise like-minded parties is presumed to pale in the shadow of the strategic disputes that separate Washington, Moscow and Beijing.
Step back, however, from the day-to-day diplomatic jousting among American, Chinese and Russian officials over what to do about North Korea, Iran and Syria, and it is difficult to arrive at any other diagnosis.
Compare the actual — and startlingly minor — divergences in the desired outcome in each crisis with the severe consequences for each great power of failure to address them effectively, and the absence of sustained engagement at the level of government leaders becomes inexplicable.
Neither Tehran, nor Pyongyang nor Damascus is considered a reliable or remotely desirable proxy power; neither Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nor Kim Jong-un nor Bashar al-Assad enjoys a relationship of trust or even regular dialogue with global leaders. The degree to which they’re useful props in the great-power contest is negligible compared to the chaos they threaten.
North Korea presents the most urgent global security challenge of the three, with its series of escalating and increasingly unhinged threats to launch nuclear attacks on South Korea as well as the United States.
For Washington and Beijing, there is a simple, undisputed and critical common agenda in preventing open — and possibly nuclear — conflict on the Korean Peninsula, continuing to open the economy of the North and promoting a wider regional détente. And yet the two capitals seem to remain, even now, on autopilot with their standard calls for de-escalation and condemnations of “provocative” behavior.
Where are the leader-to-leader phone calls, the military consultations, the urgent dispatch of senior envoys with explicit presidential authority to prepare summit-level meetings to catalyze a way out of the crisis?
The sheer humanitarian horror of Syria’s civil war perversely disguises the degree to which that country’s near-complete pulverization into a thousand brutalized pieces will have dramatic strategic consequences for decades to come. Already, it is clear that even if Assad were overthrown tomorrow, the country’s social fabric has been lost to as toxic and mutually homicidal collection of militias as any the Middle East has witnessed.
Yet the international response is still stuck at the point of last summer’s Geneva communiqué, which called for a negotiated political transition toward a broad-based representative government. It was known then that in the absence of a U.S.-Russian agreement at the highest levels on the process towards a new government in Damascus, Assad would be able to play one side off another. There is no guarantee that an Obama-Putin accord on the future of Syria would bring that country from the brink of disaster at this late hour; but without one, the worst-case scenario is virtually assured.
Finally, Iran, perhaps the issue of greatest lasting strategic significance. The most recent P5+1 (United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany) negotiations with Iran in Almaty ended in predictable stalemate and calls for further meetings.
That negotiations of this significance have been entrusted to a European Union official with accidental powers and no strategic leverage is as damning an indictment of great-power abdication as any in global politics today.
Here, too Russia, China and the United States are in remarkable agreement on ultimate outcomes — no war with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program; no Iranian nuclear-weapons capability; no long-term threat to the region’s energy supply.
Yet if there have been intensive talks between Xi Jinping, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on how to achieve a settlement that removes the risk of major conflict in the Gulf, it has been a very well-kept secret.
One need have no illusions about the strategic divergence among Russia, China and the United States in areas ranging from trade to cyberwar to energy security and human rights to believe that more can and must be done in respect of these three crises.
Indeed, it is precisely because of the uncommon coincidence of great-power interests in Syria, Iran and North Korea that the vacuum of engagement is so perplexing — and so dangerous. Russia has easily as much to lose from a jihadist-dominated Syria, and China has far more to lose from a Korean Peninsula set ablaze by Pyongyang.
There is no such thing as benign neglect when it comes to security threats of the magnitude of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Left to the occasional diplomacy of mid-level officials and E.U. functionaries, these crises will grow and metastasize with consequences damaging equally for the United States, China and Russia.
If nothing else, the current wave of nostalgia for Margaret Thatcher’s leadership — illustrated by images of the Iron Lady in consultations with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping or Helmut Kohl — should remind Obama, Putin and Xi of what can be achieved when the leaders of great powers decide to meet, negotiate, and then act in concert when it is so evidently will serve national and global interests.