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Whoa There, Rising Powers!

Brazil and Turkey's diplomatic forays may be annoying, but they also signal a huge shift in the way the world works. Is Obama paying attention?

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.

Nor has Obama's proposed nuclear grand bargain inspired these states to reconsider their own policies. The U.S. administration is hoping to use the ongoing U.N. conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to gain widespread agreement to the so-called additional protocols, which mandate more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities. Brazil and Argentina are the only signatories with nuclear enrichment plants who have not accepted the additional protocols (and Argentina has said it will agree as soon as Brazil does). During a discussion at the conference last week, the Brazilian delegate reiterated that adopting the additional protocols should be wholly voluntary, as Iran has insisted; he added that in any case non-nuclear-weapons states should not have to accept such restraints until those who have weapons agree to fully disarm.

It's tempting to dismiss much of this as mere histrionics, to be put aside when, for example, it comes times to vote on Security Council resolutions. There's no question that Brazil's interests, or Turkey's, overlap in many places with those of the U.S. and Europe; Turkey seeks nothing more ardently than full EU membership, for instance. But in many other places, interests diverge, and the middle powers are inclined to view the current world order as an instrument to advance Western designs, not theirs. Why should they have to accept a system that permits India, Israel, and Pakistan -- non-signatories of the NPT who happen to be American allies -- to have nuclear weapons while they have bound themselves not to? Why, for that matter, should they have to accept an American running the World Bank, and a Frenchman running the IMF?

The international system, which looked impregnable a decade ago, now seems increasingly ineffective and weak. "Both countries look at the global order and see the failings of the West," says Matias Spektor, a Brazil expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The West has been expanding the reach of its norms and its rules. But at the same time you've got Iraq, the financial crisis,  North Korea going nuclear, Iran, the EU imploding -- all while these emerging states have proved to be relatively steady." The perceived failure and injustice of the existing system didn't matter so much when those on the outside felt powerless. Now they feel, if anything, overly empowered, and are prepared for rhythmic diplomacy.

All this raises a fundamental question about President Obama's engagement policy. For all his efforts to improve America's international standing and to treat states, cultures, religions, international institutions, and everything else with due regard, Obama has found the world only slightly more tractable than George W. Bush did. Bush thought Turkey was a good friend until the Turks refused to let American troops pass through on the way to Iraq. Brazil was just the kind of country Obama had in mind when he argued that the U.S. could make real progress on nonproliferation by showing commitment on disarmament -- the bargain at the heart of the NPT. Obama has done the best he could, or feels he can, given the restraints imposed by a hawkish Congress and a skeptical public. And Brazil hasn't budged an inch.

Engagement, it turns out, is a weaker currency than Obama had thought. His diplomatic investments have been too modest to win compliance even from the major democratic states in the developing world that would seem to have the most in common with the United States. And the reason is that price of compliance has gone way up as those nations have grown in self-confidence. U.S. presidents will have to learn to expect less.

Or perhaps they'll need to spend more. For Obama, the really important question is whether he should reconcile himself to an unavoidable clash of interests with rising powers, or try to win them over by offering a deeper and more substantive kind of engagement -- for example, by pushing for a greater democratization of the institutions from which those states now feel excluded. It may be that the only chance to get Brazil to act more like a global citizen is to treat it like one.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Obama administration needs to make up its mind: Is Ahmed Wali Karzai a menace or an asset?

During his visit to Washington last week, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai allowed that he and U.S. President Barack Obama had discussed the problem posed by his notorious half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and that the issue had been "resolved." This last part is highly unlikely, unless President Karzai meant something like "we agreed to disagree." The "AWK problem," as it is known in Kabul and Kandahar, not only isn't resolved between Washington and Kabul; it isn't even resolved inside the Obama administration.

AWK is widely believed to be paying off the Taliban, skimming money from drug dealers, stealing government land, running private militias, threatening and even murdering his critics. He is a warlord's warlord. But he is also, and perhaps even more ruinously, using his position as head of Kandahar's provincial council to undermine tentative efforts at good governance emanating from Kabul. In late March, to take only one small example, Kandahar held a local jirga to nominate delegates to the national "peace jirga" President Karzai is holding on May 29 in the hopes of promoting reconciliation with the Taliban. The Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs had sent a broad-based list of elders who should be invited to the event. Mysteriously, a new and much-shrunken list appeared 48 hours before the meeting. "We asked around," a senior civilian official in Kandahar told me on my trip there last month, "and found out that it was AWK who made the change." He added, "Jirgas normally go on for days while they reach consensus on an issue. This one consisted of eight set speeches, and then they went to lunch."

The underlying message of the fake jirga, like the underlying message of last year's national election -- which AWK, among many other allies of President Karzai, brazenly rigged -- is that the formal operations of government are a sham, and thus that real power is private and unchecked. The central goal of the counterinsurgency strategy President Obama has adopted last year is to use a combination of military force and civilian assistance to help foster a government sufficiently just and effective that the Afghan people will prefer it to the Taliban. AWK makes a mockery of that goal, which is why a parade of leading figures, including U.S. Amb. Karl Eikenberry, have implored the Afghan leader to rein his brother in -- only to fall back before the president's impossible demand that they furnish documentary proof of misdeeds.

Intriguingly, and encouragingly, the most serious challenge to AWK's power may have come from Afghan authorities: An investigation ordered by Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the army corps commander in Kandahar, recently concluded that Karzai and his allies were engaging in illegal construction on more than 1,000 acres of government land; AWK retaliated by shutting down the provincial council. President Karzai can dismiss American demands to deal with his brother as arrogant meddling; discrediting allegations by his own senior army officers may prove a tougher sell.

The AWK problem is, at bottom, a problem of legitimacy. The administration's Afghanistan strategy eschews George W. Bush's thunderous language of democracy promotion in favor of the more modest vocabulary of "capacity-building." But a legitimate government is not simply one that can deliver basic goods (though that matters a lot). Legitimacy means that power is at least minimally accountable, and that people believe they have some kind of voice in their own affairs. Kandaharis complain more bitterly about the rule of powerbrokers than they do about the lack of schools or even security. Civilian and military officials in Kandahar are trying to strengthen the capacity of the provincial government by bringing in more representatives of national ministries and boosting the staff of the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who is widely seen as AWK's creature. But, as the senior official said to me, "We're strengthening the capacity of a government which people see as controlled by AWK."

If legitimacy simply means "capacity," then the U.S. can live with, and work around, even the worst warlords. If it means something more like "trust," then figures like AWK are calamitous. But America's contradictory relationship with him is ruled by a deeper, unresolved tension. From the outset of the war, senior U.S. and NATO commanders have gravitated toward the warlords who can deliver for them no matter what their standing with the Afghan people.

In The Punishment of Virtue, her account of the early years of the war in Kandahar, Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, recounts the increasingly intimate relationship between U.S. military and intelligence officials and Gul Agha Sherzai -- the scion, like AWK, or a powerful local family. Like AWK, Sherzai was deeply implicated in the drug trade, had shadowy relations with the insurgents, and ran roughshod over the concerns of Kandaharis, making him a loathed figure. But he had men and trucks at his command and delivered intelligence the Americans trusted. U.S. officials helped install Sherzai in power instead of former mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib, a far more popular and less brutal figure -- a decision that, Chayes writes, robbed the U.S. of the hope and enthusiasm gained in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

President Karzai transferred Sherzai out of the province in 2005 and replaced him with a family loyalist, thus initiating his brother's rise to power. But he could not exist without the support of coalition forces. AWK has long worked closely with, and perhaps been paid by, the CIA, for whom he helps operate a paramilitary force, according to press reports. Diplomats in Kandahar and Kabul want him out, but intelligence officials appear to be continuing to defend him. What's more, owing to the deep tentacles he has sunk in local government as well as such businesses as transportation, he and his allies are the chief beneficiary of the hundreds of millions of dollars NATO spends in the province, according to a recent study (pdf) by the Institute for the Study of War. In short, AWK, like Sherzai before him, has made himself indispensable for the war-fighting side of the U.S.-led Afghan endeavor, even as he has profoundly undermined the ultimate goal of that effort.

The support both men received was understandable, if mistaken, at a time when  NATO forces were fighting a more conventional war. Now they are not, and yet the looming battle for Kandahar has once again put AWK in the driver's seat. According to one recent account, military officials are hoping to "shape" AWK for their own purposes for the upcoming operation.

U.S. officials have tried publicly remonstrating with President Karzai, to no effect. Having called the American bluff, Karzai appears to be in no mood to make painful concessions. Ergo, Ahmad Wali Karzai has nothing to worry about. (Karzai even noted during his remarks in Washington that as an elected official his brother is protected by the Afghan constitution.)

But if that tension between ostensible allies can't be resolved, the one within the U.S. government can be. U.S. military and civilian leaders must decide what kind of war they are fighting. Whatever benefits intelligence agencies or Special Forces derive from AWK cannot possibly equal the harm he does to larger objectives. The report from the Institute for the Study of War argues that U.S. and NATO forces, civilian and military leaders, and provincial and national-level Afghan figures, must coordinate policy rather than work at cross purposes; that contract funds must be spread around rather than poured into the coffers of AWK and his confederates; and that private militias must be disarmed.

Afghanistan's problems are, at bottom, political. The solutions must be political. That's what it means to fight a counterinsurgency war.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images