The return of Plan B: emerging power diplomacy in the Middle East

Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability -- especially given the Iranians' decision to simultaneously announce that they will continue their enrichment program in any event. Indeed, it, like the sanctions program the United States has been engineering, seems more likely to simply hit the "pause" rather than the "reset" button, thus buying the one commodity the Iranians want most: time.

That said the effort is significant on another level. It represents the return of Plan B both to Middle Eastern and global relations. During the Cold War, international actors typically had a binary choice. They could seek the favor and advocacy of the East or the West, the Soviets or the Americans. Then, almost twenty years ago that all ended. And for a while it appeared, the choice was America or an international community that couldn't get its act together terribly effectively. 

But Turkey and Brazil working closely with Russia, India, and China, have effectively sent a message that Plan B has returned to the global equation. They have essentially said they didn't want to go along with the American approach to solving the problem (sanctions) and were vehemently against the Israeli approach (bombs away). The Turks in particular have been vocal with their BRIC partners in expressing their skepticism of the effectiveness of sanctions and their sense they would be very counterproductive.

The Iranians in turn seem to have recognized that the Brazil-Turkey deal is a win-win for them. It makes them look like they want to be constructive and thus takes the heat off of them and buys time. They get to tip the geopolitical scales in the direction of the relevance of emerging powers, tweak the U.S. efforts, and seemingly help usher in a new era in international diplomacy.

Something else vitally important to notice has happened here. This has become the first Middle Eastern stand-off in which the most important player from outside the region was China -- because China is the one country that had and has the power to determine whether or not a sanctions regime would work. The Chinese, while still internally debating just how much they want to lead on the international stage, have played this deftly so far. They have engaged in talks with the United States and with their BRIC plus one partners. They have evaluated. Behind the scenes they have been constructive and moderate with reports coming out of recent meetings among BRIC leaders that they have made the case for understanding the pressure that President Obama is under. And they have pressed the Iranians to make a deal while sharing like the others in the emerging power leadership a healthy skepticism of Iranian motives and likely compliance.

Thus this deal may seem smallish and technical from afar, but it could well signal a change in the way international diplomacy works. Certainly, it signals an intent on the part of a group of vitally important emerging powers not to be cowed by the "with us or against us" mindset that still permeates some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.


David Rothkopf

Questions of the Week: Karzai kabuki theater, divided governments, and the Merkel meltdown

Is It Too Early to Call the Karzai Visit a Failure?

No. Especially after it was upstaged by General McChrystal's televised declaration that we're getting nowhere in Afghanistan. But the fact that the media has reacted to the whole carefully orchestrated exercise as though it were either a) a charade (see Maureen Dowd yesterday or Helene Cooper's excellent article in today's New York Times) or b) not happening (see the fact that the story didn't even make the front page of Friday's Times) is really a secondary problem for those with the unenviable task of guiding Obama's benighted AfPak policy. 

The real measure of success of the effort is going to come in the U.S. Congress when it votes on the supplemental appropriation to support the increasingly unpopular conflict. If they vote the money, then all this lying through the gritted teeth of U.S. and Afghan politicians about how well everything is going and everyone is getting along will have bought some time at least. If they don't vote it, vote less or make the process really painful for the president then not only will all this posturing seem to have been pointless but Obama is going to have to face up to the possibility that not only is the war going to end badly (as almost seems inevitable) it's going to end for the United States a lot sooner than he, Karzai or anyone involved wants it to. 

That said, the fact that both U.S. and Afghan officials believe it will take a decade of active U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to prepare for a real security handover á la Iraq suggests just how unlikely a real U.S. success in Afghanistan is. Because if the Congress is choking on the money this year (and Speaker Pelosi has warned more than one visitor to her office that passing the supplemental could be "tougher than health care") imagine how much worse it will get in the run up to 2012. Which in the end means the current visit is actually serving a useful purpose, preparing all involved for the bald-faced dissembling that will be required to put a good face on this mess when we head for the door.

Is the Hot New Trend Divided Government?

With the election of the Doublemint Twins in the U.K. after an election that didn't produce a majority winner, the voters of the countries that were once seen as the world's top powers seem to be sending a message (advertently or otherwise) that at a moment of great crisis, they're perfectly happy letting someone else take the lead -- because in country after country election results or projections seem to be making it tougher for leaders to get anything done. 

In Germany, the recent election bodes ill for Angela Merkel's party. Japanese politics are just a hopeless mess. The United States seems to be headed for an election which produces a much more evenly divided Congress. France's president seems to currently have the support of only about a third of the French people. Admittedly, the confusion among voters only mirrors that among the leaders but it doesn't bode well for swift or bold decision-making within the G8 countries ... and may offer an opening to countries, like China, that aren't burdened with the complexities and headaches associated with democracy.

And while we're on the subject of the Brits, all credit to them for being presented with a confounding (if not entirely unexpected) election result and within days not only piecing together an inter-party deal but actually putting together and announcing an entire coalition cabinet.  It's one thing they do so well that Americans, accustomed to agonizingly long cabinet nominating and approval processes, watch with envy. At least this one does. And since this one is also a bit of a National Security Council historian, he was pleased to see the Cameron government launch the process to set up an equivalent body in Britain. It's a bit of a trend worldwide recently. The question is could we in the United States be using ours better while others are so inclined to imitate it? 

Does the European Economic Crisis Spell Trouble for Alternative Energy Advocates?

It has been a bad year for the European model of coping with the climate crisis. First, in the run up to Copenhagen, we saw the preferred European approach of moving toward a global cap and trade system falter. The Chinese and Indian idea of "target and regulate" (meaning they set their own national targets, don't commit to global hard caps and use regulation and whatever tools they saw fit to achieve those goals) gained traction and as it did, so too did the center of gravity for global leadership on these issues shift to the Pacific from the Atlantic. 

Now, with Europe's economies battered by the markets and burdened by debt, what will become of the rich incentives that have made the growth of alternative energy in Europe possible? Here's the answer: they're going to have to be cut back over the next several years, particularly in countries like Spain where they are especially expensive and debts are especially high. Further, since the European commitment to combating global warming is not likely to diminish, expect more of focus on regulations, taxes, surcharges and penalties (which actually produce revenues for the government) and less on incentives, grants and other costly goodies.  And just as the Europeans get this message, expect a similar one here in the U.S. and in places like Japan.  This in turn will leave the Chinese who are sitting on a $2.4 billion piggybank and an equally large reservoir of political will to lead in an ever better position to make the big leap from memories of a red revolution at home to leading a green one worldwide.

Who's in Charge on Climate Legislation?

This week saw the launch of Senators Kerry and Lieberman's long awaited climate legislation.  It also saw Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid express his view that such a bill might be difficult to pass this year and that perhaps it would make sense to focus on an "energy only" initiative that might include a Renewable Energy Standard, some offshore provisions and a few other elements more popular with a larger majority of Senate members. His saying this literally hours before the Kerry Lieberman launch suggests a bit of a split at the top of the Democratic congressional leadership on this...the kind of thing that might have been better worked out behind closed doors. Who's in charge here? If the White House is committed to this kind of legislation passing this year -- and it may be much harder to pass after the November elections if the Republicans make big gains -- why aren't they taking the lead on shaping proposals and ensuring that their team on the Hill is unified behind them? Admittedly, this has not been the way things have worked on health care or financial services reform but, perhaps the lessons of those experiences suggest a new approach might be in order.