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from other countries to manage challenges like Syria, Libya, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but its diplomacy is outdated.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.

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 27, 2013 21:44 UTC

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

Israeli-Palestinian talks won’t fix the Middle East’s problems

Ian Bremmer
Jul 31, 2013 15:35 UTC

On Monday, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State John Kerry had convinced Israel and the Palestinian Authority to sit down for negotiations for the first time in three years. Coming out of Monday and Tuesday’s meetings, Kerry announced a goal of working out a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months.

Simply reviving talks at all is a highly impressive achievement; getting both sides to the table would have been impossible without Kerry’s relentless effort. But if the Obama administration thinks this will change the dynamic in the Middle East, it is mistaken for two reasons. First, the initiative is unlikely to succeed, and second, even if it did, it would have little impact on other more immediately pressing Middle East conflicts.

It’s not that pushing for an Israel-Palestine solution isn’t a valiant cause — it’s that there is a full tray of conflicts in the Middle East that exist independently from the Israel-Palestine question: the growing rifts in Egypt or Iraq, the Syrian crisis that has claimed over 100,000 lives, or Iran’s nuclear program. Even Israel and Palestine themselves prioritize many other regional concerns over making any significant progress with each other.

Hillary goes, China grows: The game plan for the next Secretary of State

Ian Bremmer
Dec 10, 2012 22:15 UTC

In a country balanced on the precipice of a “fiscal cliff,” we sure are talking a lot about the next secretary of state. In his second term, President Barack Obama will also likely have to name a new treasury secretary, defense secretary, transportation secretary, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and Central Intelligence Agency director, at the least. But, despite an imminent fiscal cliff, suffocating unemployment and a widening disparity of wealth across the United States, it is the anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s replacement that has sparked the most discussion.

Largely, this is because of Susan Rice. Rice, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Democrats, has been Obama’s United Nations ambassador for four years. Obama, reports suggest, would like to nominate her to be the new secretary of state. Republicans, reports are clear, are having none of it. Rice’s involvement in the administration’s initial confusion over the embassy attack in Libya — she repeated the administration’s misinformed talking points — has made her the target of withering critiques before she is even officially nominated.

So what is Obama to do? If he nominates Rice, he will have an unnecessary fight on his hands. No matter how competent she might be, it is not clear that she would be confirmed, which is what matters most. And in a moment when bipartisan negotiation is — at least ostensibly — the most important goal in Washington, launching a politicized candidate into a nomination battle may not fly.

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