Opinion

Ian Bremmer

In search of self-aware diplomacy

Ian Bremmer
Nov 26, 2013 16:11 UTC

In 2005, Karen Hughes became George W. Bush’s undersecretary of public diplomacy. Her charge, both poorly defined and ill-timed, was to improve America’s international image in the years after the country had launched two wars. Other countries will side with us and do what we want if only we better explain our point of view, the thinking went, and make them see us as we see ourselves. By the time Hughes left office in 2007, international opinion of the U.S. was no higher than it was when she arrived, according to polls.

And yet, this kind of if-we-say-it-clearly-enough-they-will-listen diplomacy is not exclusive to the Bush administration. It has carried over into the Obama White House. So when an Obama administration official says that Washington welcomes a “strong, responsible, and prosperous China” that plays a “constructive” role in regional and global institutions, Chinese officials are left to wonder who gets to decide what the words “responsible” and “constructive” mean for China’s foreign policy. Responsible and constructive for whom?

And when senior U.S. officials describe their relationship with Iran as “marked by open hostilities since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran,” they are insulting the intelligence of the men they’ve been negotiating with. From the Iranian perspective, bad relations with the U.S. didn’t begin in 1979. They started back in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy, led a CIA-backed coup to remove an Iranian prime minister — proving that Americans would violate Iran’s sovereignty to ensure its favored politician ruled the country.

This dissonance between what’s presented and what’s perceived is a problem, especially in a new world order that lacks order. More than ever, the U.S. needs help and cooperation from other countries to manage challenges like Syria, Libya, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but its diplomacy is outdated. Americans have never been willing to understand how their actions are received by others and to accept the consequences of those actions. The country was once powerful enough to get away with that myopia. It’s not anymore.

Take, for example, the repeated suggestion that China become a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics, a phrase made famous by then-Deputy Secretary of State (later World Bank President) Robert Zoellick during the Bush years. The Obama administration has embraced this view — but Beijing sees itself differently. Beijing wants international institutions capable of seeing the world from a Chinese point of view. It feels like it’s in a different position than the U.S., still radically poor per capita and therefore not responsible for expensive heavy-lifting in the world at large, as we saw last week with its meager response to Typhoon Haiyan. When the U.S. demands that China behave like the superpower it’s becoming, it fails to recognize how China regards itself.

Make no entangling foreign frenemies

Ian Bremmer
Apr 16, 2012 18:09 UTC

It’s often said that kinship runs deeper than friendship. Lately, when it comes to chumminess among world leaders and their colleagues in neighboring countries, friendship has trumped citizenship.

Until recently, it was rare to find leaders willing to forge friendships with candidates across borders or to find would-be leaders campaigning inside foreign countries. There are good reasons for that: Candidates who cross these lines can find it harder to win elections or to govern once the electoral test is passed. Their foreign friends can pay a price for backing the wrong horse and for forfeiting a bit of diplomatic leverage once they find themselves sitting across the bargaining table from the man or woman they campaigned against. Consider three current examples.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support for the re-election bid of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is especially startling. It’s hardly surprising that Merkel wants Sarkozy to win. The two leaders have forged a durable personal relationship as they navigated their way through Europe’s ongoing crisis of confidence. The French and German leaders deserve considerable praise for their well-coordinated bid to bolster the euro zone.

Why Syria’s Assad is still in power

Ian Bremmer
Apr 4, 2012 16:23 UTC

We can’t afford to throw him out.

Last week, likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney caused a tempest in a teapot when he told CNN that he thought the top U.S. geopolitical foe is Russia. President Obama’s White House seized on the comment, rebutting that al Qaeda is actually our top foe abroad. But if we look at the way American foreign policy has been enacted since the beginnings of the global crisis, it’s clear that America’s biggest opponent on the world stage is really itself.

Take what’s going on in Syria as the most recent example. That country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, continues to tease the world’s diplomats by claiming to want peace for his people, yet he cracks down with unfettered abandon on their protests against his oppressive regime. Having just agreed to yet another peace plan, a troop withdrawal by Apr. 10, it’s clear he’ll find some way around his latest bargain, as he always has. What’s even more shocking is that the peace deal, negotiated by Kofi Annan, did not even call for Assad to leave power, which to outside eyes seems like a precondition for any sort of success. And the absence of the demand that Assad go is squarely due to the U.S.’s refusal to back it up with the sort of severe consequences it used to dole out: military strikes, preemptive wars and overwhelming use of force. For the U.S., at least for now, those days are over. And Washington won’t make foreign policy promises it can’t or doesn’t intend to keep.

After all, consider the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Here was a decades-long enemy of the U.S. whose people rose up against him in a huge insurgency. His people lived in a backward state while he enriched himself with billions of stolen dollars. To borrow a phrase, the case for his deposal was a slam-dunk. Yet even this most climactic act of the Arab Spring did not draw out a single ground-troop commitment from the Obama administration. The U.S., in fact, only ran about 10 percent of the total NATO bombing runs over Libya – not exactly the type of campaign the U.S. military is used to making against brutal dictators with bad reputations who antagonize it.

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