People used to ask whether democracies had the makeup for war. But when it comes to Syria, it seems that it is diplomacy rather than warfare that is most difficult for Western onlookers to digest. As the carnage, dislocation and suffering grow, Western leaders seem more comfortable talking about limited military intervention than embracing the morally awkward choices they would need to make to achieve a political settlement. The problem is that the logic of diplomacy and the logic of democracy seem increasingly at odds.
In the glaring light of a democratic age, governments are expected to deliver moral clarity, rapid action and ambitious objectives while dealing with friends and isolating enemies. But in the private world of diplomacy, officials deal in shades of gray. They play for time rather than precipitating action, they set limited objectives and they often engage their enemies. The iconic diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in an essay called “Morality and Foreign Policy” that, “the primary obligation of a government is to the interests of the national society it represents, not to the moral impulses that elements of that society may experience.”
Although Secretary of State John Kerry has calmed the drums of war and reached out to his Russian counterpart to develop a peace process, much of his subsequent rhetoric ‑ from calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure to supporting the lifting of the European arms embargo ‑ seems to be more motivated by the moral-politik of democratic politics than the realpolitik of diplomacy.
As Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy argue in a new ECFR report, it will be impossible to de-escalate the crisis in Syria by sticking to the comfortable pronouncements of Western politicians.
Rather than insisting that Assad must leave as a precondition for peace talks with the nation, the West should accept that his fate must be a topic for the discussions. Rather than moving toward action by lifting arms embargoes or equipping the rebels, the West should use its leverage to persuade outside backers of the conflict to slow the flow of arms. Rather than defining their objectives expansively to include the fall of Assad or the curtailing of Iran, the West should narrow the goals to reducing and containing the violence in Syria. And finally, rather than excluding key players such as Iran from the talks on the grounds that they will be spoilers, they should promote an inclusive process that contains all the main players.