Red-Line Follies

Sorting the mistakes from the fiascos on Syria.

There is so much wrong with the current "red-line" mess with Syria that a little sorting out is in order. It has gotten to the point that you can't tell which fiasco you are talking about without a scorecard.

In the first instance, of course, there is the self-inflicted wound element of the problem, as reported in Sunday's New York Times. Apparently, according to the paper, the president's initial use of the term "red line" was an ill-considered bit of rhetorical muscle-flexing on his part. Since the president is the font from which all policy flows, it can hardly be called freelancing, but it was something close, making policy with a slip of the lip and less reflection on consequences than is truly desirable.

Of course, the word "consequences" cuts to another dimension of the problem that goes beyond the process misstep involved. Declaring a red line without figuring out the consequences you are willing to impose in advance is asking for trouble. It is the equivalent of a parent threatening an unruly child by counting to three: It works fine if the child doesn't have the courage, curiosity, or recklessness to find out what happens after you get to three. Typically, however, the approach doesn't work if the one you are seeking to talk back into line is a proven mass-murderer.

Another problem associated with the red line that Sen. John McCain quipped was written in "disappearing" ink has to do with the various ways United States has hemmed and hawed about the issue in the days since evidence appeared that suggested the red line might have been crossed. Admittedly, some of this was soundly cautious, a "let's be sure" reaction that was a hard-learned lesson from Iraq. But some of it -- notably the mixed signals that included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's suggesting that the line might have been passed (a little, somehow, but not too much, but still worrisomely) while also saying the United States was considering tougher measures while also not actually taking any -- was a classic illustration of a rudderless reaction.

Also unsettling was the press spinning in the past 24 hours in the wake of the Israeli strikes on Syria. While the Israeli action was, as the president has indicated, wholly justifiable, the United States seems to be playing both sides on this one. On the one hand, there were assertions to the press in the wake of the first attacks that the United States was not notified of them until after the fact. On the other, on Monday morning NBC reported that U.S. national security sources had indicated the Israelis had used U.S. intelligence in their preparations.

None of the dimensions of this muddle is nearly as ugly as the whole notion that it is appropriate to have declared the use of chemical weapons to be a red line in the first place. There should be no debate about the fact that the use of weapons of mass destruction is an especially heinous threat warranting strong response. But events have underscored just how arbitrary and morally questionable the distinction is. According to the United Nations, as of last month, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria by conventional means in the past two years. And, as reported by CNN, citing comments from U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay, that may "actually be an underestimate." Not only is that more than twice the estimated death toll in the Libyan conflict but, as it happens, it is roughly the same as the immediate death toll in the wake of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki at the end of World War II (60,000-80,000).

So we're really splitting hairs here when it comes to red lines, aren't we? Are we more concerned by the means of attack than we are by the ends achieved? Surely to those who are victims, the losses are just as grievous.

Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Moscow this week to try to encourage Russia to assist in the bringing of this conflict to an end. While cajoling or pressuring the Russians has not worked to date, this is the right move at the moment. Frankly, there is no way to further pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- he has no Plan B. The day after he ceases being Syria's ruler (and its executioner-in-chief), he will become a prisoner or be one of its casualties. Similarly, his backers in Tehran have embraced their pariah status.  They are flaunting global rules regarding nuclear proliferation and remain the world's leading state sponsor of terror. Expecting them to change their stripes anytime soon is foolish.

That leaves Russia's Vladimir Putin, who perversely is enabling a mass-murderer as part of a campaign to remain globally relevant. The Russians have a big event coming up next year in Sochi -- the Olympics -- that will have all eyes of the world upon them. To date, their support of Syria has had no real cost. It is time for Kerry to indicate that the United States has both carrots and sticks and the will to use them to move the Russians to a position more consistent with international law and basic human decency. Now that Washington has become more engaged, post-Boston, in its awareness of the problem of fundamentalism in Russia's near abroad, it can more effectively partner with the Kremlin in a way that will be increasingly important in the run up to the Games. Alternatively, the United States can and should privately send a message that should the Russians refuse to play a more constructive role, America will have to reconsider its involvement in their big party.

Admittedly, evoking a Jimmy Carter-era policy is hardly a sure-fire winner in terms of public opinion. And there are certainly other ways to pressure the Russians (how aggressively and quickly we go into the business of offering Europe a cheaper, more dependable alternative to Russian natural gas is just one example). But because Russia is the one key player in this equation that is vulnerable to international pressure and because its behavior to date on this has been so egregious, Kerry must be clear that the United States will use all the tools in its toolbox to get the Kremlin to move on Syria. If then, he can also find a way to work with others in the region -- not just the Israelis but the moderate Arab states of the Middle East -- to turn up the military heat on Assad, then perhaps the Obama team can use the confusion and reflection associated with these red-line follies to help move us toward a more constructive approach in that ravaged country.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The Next Head of the WTO? Choose Wisely.

It's time to put someone from the BRICS in charge of the world's leading trade body.

In a historic first, the next leader of the World Trade Organization will hail from Latin America. A field of nine candidates has now been winnowed down to two, one from Mexico and one from Brazil, meaning that, at a crucial moment in the history of the international trading system, the leader of the central organization for resolving global trade differences and shaping future agreements will come from the emerging part of the Western Hemisphere.

One candidate, Roberto Azevedo, is currently Brazil's ambassador to the WTO. The other, Herminio Blanco, is a former Mexican trade minister and one of the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both are widely respected and well-liked by those who know them well. On the surface, the two candidates seem extremely similar. But to suggest that these men represent a common perspective could not be further from the truth. They illustrate a choice as stark as past and future for an organization that finds itself at a critical turning point.

The knock on Azevedo is that he has never served as a trade minister, a post that has typically been a jumping-off point for past WTO chiefs. But he has been exceptionally active within the halls of the trade organization's Geneva headquarters -- an acknowledged leader there, especially among the world's rising powers, and he is seen as more closely in touch with the trade issues of the day than is Blanco.

Blanco, trained at the University of Chicago, is exceptionally competent. I worked with him when I was a senior U.S. trade official during the Clinton administration and I know that my colleagues and I always held him in very high regard. But, in the eyes of his critics, he has been out of the international trade arena for too long, having been working in the private sector and not actively involved in the complex, frustrating debates surrounding the Doha world trade talks or the need for meaningful reform of the WTO. The organization, set up officially in 1995, doesn't seem up to addressing the problems of a modern world crisscrossed with non-tariff barriers or grappling with the new problems of Internet- and services-based trade, widespread currency manipulation, and incipient protection appearing in many guises.

There is, however, a bigger difference between the two men that is already manifesting itself in the early whip-counts of potential voters from around the world. According to trade-community insiders in Washington and around the world with whom I have spoken over the past few days, Blanco is seen as the preferred candidate of the United States and much of what might be described as the traditional or old-school trade establishment. Azevedo, on the other hand, appears to have deeper support among the BRICs and among many of the other representatives of the emerging world.

This split matters, because the principal divide in world trade today is not, as it once was, East-West, trans-Atlantic, or even trans-Pacific. It is much more north-south, a split between developed countries that have long dominated the trade discussions and the emerging ones who, through flexing their muscle effectively for the first time during the Doha Round negotiations, put those discussions on ice until their core concerns could be resolved.

Among the most critical of those concerns are frustrations emerging powers have with the seemingly bullet-proof, reform-resistant series of subsidies that are protecting developed-world agricultural producers at the expense of their counterparts like Brazil, India, and other emerging countries with great potential to provide feed the world. Similarly, the questions associated with how and when emerging powers begin to compete and operate on the same terms and to the same standards as developed powers also loom large. Newly proposed trade deals, such as the recently opened negotiations between the United States and the European Union, have at their heart a desire by these first-world powers to grow closer together and to maintain a more unified front when challenged by the emerging powers led by the BRICs.

The WTO has, thus far, despite a global set of responsibilities, largely been a club built on the vision and delivering special power to representatives of the developed world. But while much is murky about the future of the global economy, one thing is not: The balance of trade growth is shifting, irreversibly to the emerging world. (By 2010, according to the United Nations, developing-country import growth already was responsible for about half of world trade growth.) In addition, the emerging countries represent both a majority of world population and the nations with the greatest need for consistent economic growth if social equity or stability are our shared goals as a planet.

Developed countries fear that having a Brazilian lead the WTO would put their interests at risk. But there's no reason to think so. Quite the contrary: Azevedo, given his background and support among the most important countries of the emerging world as well as his familiarity with the WTO as it is currently operating, might well be more likely to offer a path toward practical North-South solutions. In addition, Brazil's own strong stand against currency manipulation -- whether by China or the United States -- is an example of why it is old-think to assume that an individual's place of birth represents an ideological strait-jacket.

There are few global organizations about which the view is so widely held that reform is essential and few where, for that reform to be fair and effective, it is so vital that the new voices of the global economy be fairly represented. Because Roberto Azevedo is the best person to lead that change and stand for those voices, he should be the WTO's next director-general.