When I first read the news about the nuclear deal that Brazil and Turkey reached last week with Iran, I flinched. My reflex reaction was: Third-World troublemakers rally to the side of evil-doer in the face of Western pressure. That was, of course, the wrong reflex. This was not China giving succor to Zimbabwe, or Venezuela recognizing Abkhazia. Brazil and Turkey are among the most solidly founded democracies and market economies in the developing world. Both are important U.S. allies, and mature actors in international fora. Their joint bid to break the impasse on Iran represents something more encouraging, more worrisome, and much more significant than any of Hugo Chávez's antics.
The Obama administration appears to have had the same reaction I did: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly called her Turkish counterpart to warn him off the effort, and publicly predicted it would fail. The implicit message sounded like: Don't mess in our sandbox. That fell on deaf ears. President Luiz Inacío Lula da Silva of Brazil went ahead with his long-planned trip to Iran, and he was joined there by Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan of Turkey. And they hammered out a deal that in important ways resembled the one the West had been seeking: Tehran would yield up 1,200 kilograms of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to be reprocessed elsewhere and then returned for peaceful uses.
The Obama administration repudiated the deal, and the big powers within the U.N. Security Council went ahead and agreed on a new draft sanctions resolution. Some critics have alleged that the U.S. administration passed up a golden opportunity for peace in a fit of pique at diplomatic interlopers, or that Iran had made painful concessions to fellow emerging nations that it would not make to the West. I think the administration was right on the merits. In the highly unlikely event that the deal goes through, Iran will still have lots more low-enriched uranium left to play with; and Tehran has openly stated that it will persist in enriching available stocks. Accepting such a deal would have constituted a recognition that Iran cannot be prevented from developing a nuclear weapons capability. That might be where all this ends up, but it's way too early to acquiesce to such an outcome.
We're probably back to square one, or square whatever, on Iran; but something important has shifted in the world order, and we will have to get over our flinch reflex. Brazil and Turkey are middle-sized powers -- eighth and 17th in the world, respectively, in GDP -- that live at peace with their neighbors and believe they have a calling to play a role on the global stage. In recent years, both have opened embassies around the world. Both have ambitious leaders whose sails are filled with the wind of nationalist sentiment. In an article last week for Foreign Policy, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explained that one of the guiding principles of his country's foreign policy was "rhythmic diplomacy," which sounds like jazzercise but in fact, as he put it, "implies active involvement in all international organizations and on all issues of global and international importance."
What are we to make of the fact that countries the United States wishes would play a larger role in the world are now doing so, but in a way that frustrates American goals? First of all, it tells us that the diplomacy surrounding global issues will be a lot more complicated than it was even quite recently. Sometimes the mobilization of new actors will help solidify a consensus around tough issues, as the G-20 did last year in confronting the global financial crisis. But since the global consensus tends to fall apart as you move beyond the economy, the impatience of middle-sized powers to play a role equal to their status, or what they view as their status, will further muddle already messy areas of statecraft. The Brazils and Turkeys of the world are not likely to form a coherent new bloc, but they will be far less inclined than they were in the past to stay within the lines chalked in by the referees of the West.
We overrate the salience of democracy to foreign policy. Partisans of a "concert of democracies" have assumed that maturing democracies in the developing world would seek to advance the same, supposedly universal, values prized by their elders in the West, but it hasn't worked out that way. Foreign policy in Brazil and Turkey seem much less deeply shaped by their domestic political order than by the ambitions of their leaders and by their membership in the "non-aligned movement," which tends to view coercive measures of any kind imposed by the West as a violation of state sovereignty. What's more, since neither country feels deeply threatened by Iran, neither is prepared to put aside cherished principles in order to restrain the regime in Tehran, or even to strengthen the nonproliferation system.