Op-Ed

UN Summit: More than a Missed Opportunity

James B. Steinberg



UN Summit: More than a Missed Opportunity—a Fumbled Ball
September 14, 2005

Lee Feinstein’s attempt to find a ray of light emerging from the darkness surrounding the UN Summit is noble, but it risks glossing over what has to be seen as a profound failure, not only of US leadership, but of the ability of the international community as a whole to step up to the enormous challenges facing the world in the 21st century.

It may be that it was unrealistic from the outset to think that in the absence of a global calamity on the scale of World War II, nations could take bold steps to improve the tools of international cooperation and adapt them to the challenges of the 21st century. But, as Lee correctly observes, the confluence of the High Level Panel report and the Gingrich-Mitchell report, suggested that there was a surprising degree of consensus not only the need for change, but the direction of change as well. Regrettably, once the process was turned over to the member states, business as usual took hold, with most states more concerned about protecting their sacred cows, then making progress.

The genius of the High Level Panel Report was in its recognition of the need for a grand bargain. The developed countries, particularly the United States, would gain a greater, more unqualified commitment by the other nations to address terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as a more vigorous defense of human rights, while the developing countries in turn would get greater commitments to address their “security” issues—poverty, disease, civil conflict, environmental damage and the need for stronger mechanisms to help them recover from conflict. The elements of the grand bargain that would have benefited the United States included a very unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, a willingness to recognize the need for the preventive use of force to address emerging threats, and a legitimate Human Rights Council that could effectively call to account rights abusers.

Instead of pursuing a strategy designed to maximize achievement of US goals at the summit, the Administration sought to limit its obligations on the other side of the bargain—on development (including trade and aid), environment and nuclear disarmament agendas of importance to the developing world. But the fault lies on the other side as well—for too many of the developing countries, it was also business as usual, more concerned about protecting the prerogatives of a profoundly dysfunctional General Assembly than moving forward on meaningful UN reform, more insistent on fighting old ideological battles about the need to distinguish terrorism from so-called wars of liberation, than on reaping real gains for their own people.

The result was a draw—succeeded in knocking out almost everything that the Administration found offensive, while the old warriors of the non-aligned movement blocked progress on virtually every item which might make the UN more effective in dealing with challenges of globalization and interdependence, and therefore, a truly meaningful alternative to unilateralism. True, as Lee suggests, the inclusion of the “responsibility to protect” is of value as a norm, including a specific reference to the availability of Chapter VII actions (read “use force”), but this in a context where the paragraphs on use of force echo more old think than an awareness that to be relevant, the UN system must be more effective in addressing the dangers we face today.

Was this just a “missed” rather than “lost” opportunity? Don’t put any bets on the ability of the General Assembly to solve the thorny issues that the summiteers handed over to it (such as the mandate and composition of the new Human Rights Council, or reform of the Security Council). Perhaps the one chance to salvage this missed opportunity is through the selection of a dynamic successor to Kofi Annan who can galvanize leaders of key nations to rethink the necessity of the bargain proposed by the High Level Panel.


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The Strategic Case for “Getting it Done”
August 24, 2005

One of the most important arguments in support of the “get it done” school was advanced this week by Senator Hagel—”I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”

This is the opposite of the claim President Bush and his advisors have been advancing over the past few days—that withdrawal would create greater instability in the region. Which view is more accurate is perhaps the most critical strategic question facing us today, because it is increasingly clear that our military presence is having little practical impact on defeating the insurgency in Iraq itself. So we need to focus on the broader strategic consequences of an open-ended deployment that is not only polarizing views toward the United States in the region, but damaging our standing around the world. Although I agree that a quick withdrawal (or even substantial reduction) of our troops could in the short term exacerbate the sectarian conflict within Iraq itself, its not clear that our continued military role is contributing much to reconciling the parties—quite the opposite, it may be emboldening both Shia and Kurd leaders to believe they can defeat the Sunni insurgency by force rather than through politics. Critics of withdrawal contend that our departure will create a vacuum that contending neighbors will rush in to fill—but all the evidence suggests that game is already underway, with the ironic consequence that our presence is strengthening the hand of Iran in Iraq itself and in the region, potentially setting the stage for a more profound Shia-Sunni conflict with profound consequences for the United States, as Professor Vali Nasr has argued in his Summer 2004 Washington Quarterly article.

While much is made of the debate over the “analogy” (Vietnam) one of the most important dimensions may be the dog that did not bark after our withdrawal from Vietnam—the fear of falling dominoes and the damage to US leadership and authority around the world. In fact it can be argued that although we “failed” in Vietnam, the decision finally to withdraw cauterized a strategic wound and allowed the United States to turn its focus to more vital strategic priorities, such as the normalization of relations with China and a more effective strategy for dealing with the real challenge from the USSR. The parallel here is obvious—if the core challenge confronting the United States is terrorism arising from Islamic militancy, getting it done in Iraq sooner rather than later may the most important decision we can make.


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Special Envoys—and “Special” Engagement
August 20, 2005

The announcement that the Bush administration has appointed a special envoy on human rights in North Korea is just one more reflection of how the Bush Administration continues to move away from its “ABC”—”anything but Clinton” approach of the first term.

In both policy and style the Bush team came to office with a reflexive rejection of everything and anything its predecessor pursued—and nowhere was that more apparent than in the Administration’s approach to North Korea and the Middle East, where the new crowd spurned engagement and involvement in favor of a rigid ideology that led to stalemate and worse in two regions of critical importance to the United States. And to symbolize this move, the Bush team announced it was doing away with “special envoys”—particularly in the Middle East and Africa—which the Clinton Administration had used with some frequency to focus policy development and implementation on regions and problems of importance (an account of the Bush Administration’s approach to special envoys can be found in Michael Fullilove’s article “All the President’s Men” in the March/April 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs.)

Fortunately, the second term has brought a healthy new dose of realism to the Administration’s approach to diplomacy. The appointment—and empowerment—of Ambassador Chris Hill, veteran of the Balkan negotiations, as the lead US negotiator on the North Korean nuclear problem has led with little fanfare to the abandonment of the first-term rejection of face to face talks with North Koreans—and that in turn has at least opened the window for progress on the negotiations. And Secretary Rice’s trips to the Middle East, and at least cautious willingness to speak out on the issue of the future of the Roadmap, highlighted in her interview this week with the New York Times—is a welcome departure from the “if the parties want an agreement, they can do it themselves” approach of the Powell era. In both cases, more focused, determined diplomatic efforts are still needed, but at least the Administration has come to the belated recognition that without “special” efforts by the United States, neither of these key regional conflicts have any chance of resolution.


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“Shrinking Japan” and the Geopolitics of East Asia
August 5, 2005

John Ikenberry rightly offers some nuance to the all too fashionable conclusion that Japan is on the decline But unlike John, I don’t see any danger that that “[t]he Washington-Tokyo axis threatens to be replaced with a Washington-Beijing axis as the diplomatic cornerstone of regional stability.”

John Ikenberry’s post on Japan offers some important qualifications to the current, all too fashionable conclusion that Japan is on the decline and therefore can be comfortably ignored in the grand geopolitical strategy debate. But unlike John, I don’t see any danger that that “[t]he Washington-Tokyo axis threatens to be replaced with a Washington-Beijing axis as the diplomatic cornerstone of regional stability.” Quite the contrary—we may look back at the last several years as an artificial high water mark in Sino-US relations, as nationalists in China and those who fear China’s rise in the United States fuel a spiral of mistrust and hedging that leads to deeper and deeper estrangement between our two countries. This would be welcomed by some nationalist forces in Japan who fear China’rise and Sino-US rapprochement, and hope to reconstitute the Cold War US-Japan alliance as an alliance to contain China. But that result is lose-lose-lose proposition for all three countries, threatening the economic prosperity and relative stability that has characterized East Asia for the past generation. The United States has an enormous stake in trying to tamp down the growing Sino-Japanese antagonism, primarily by making clear that the only solution to regional stability is a trilateral one in which all three countries have a significant voice and that bilateral relations between the United States and Japan are complementary to, rather than a substitute for, the Washington-Beijing “axis”—and vice versa.


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China Policy
July 28, 2005

Jim Lindsay raises an important challenge on how to respond to disagreements with China—but to begin to formulate a strategy, we need to disaggregate the problem.

Jim Lindsay raises important questions about how to deal with a China that will not always agree (and perhaps frequently disagree) with the United States’ preferred course of action. But it’s important to disaggregate the problem a bit, beyond simply saying that we can’t “give China a pass to behave as it wishes” if it “thumbs its nose at what the West wants to accomplish.” After all, even some of our “allies”—e.g. France—have often parted company with us, and sometimes in ways that seriously frustrate our own goals. Jim talks about China welcoming Mugabe; recall that the French Foreign Minister went out of his way to receive Arafat at time when the Bush Administration was trying to isolate him. Yes, China did an oil deal Uzbekistan, but France went forward with energy investments in Iran at time when the Clinton Administration was trying to tighten the screws on the mullahs.

So the question is whether our disagreements with China are different in kind that would require a different paradigm for thinking about how we respond. There are two inter-related reasons why that might be: first, because China (unlike France) has the potential to become a strategic rival to the United States, and second, because China’s authoritarian political system requires us to respond differently than we do with respect to disagreements with other democracies.

China’s political structure is relevant to Jim Lindsay’s question because it is appropriate for us to give more deference to decisions by democratically elected governments than to those of authoritarian governments, even when we strongly disagree, out of respect for their political legitimacy. This is not to say that we are never justified in taking strong actions in response to policies of democracies that threaten important US interests, but the threshold surely should be higher, and the actions taken in response more measured.

On the question of whether we need a different response paradigm because China might become a strategic rival, we need to decide whether our interests are threatened by a rising power per se (a view the Bush Administration seemed to take it in its 2002 National Security Strategy Report), or whether our attitude will depend on the concrete actions that China takes. If the latter, it will be important for us to define clear red lines about Chinese behavior that would threaten core US security and economic interests; and the consequences that would flow from failure to heed those interests; while recognizing that not every disagreement rises to that level of concern, and a policy of “my way or the highway” is neither sustainable nor likely to be effective.

This leaves open the question of how to respond when China’s actions challenge our values—whether in its treatment of its own people, or in the wider international community. It is right that on the values questions we cannot “give China a pass” in Jim Lindsay’s words, but, here, even more than in cases where China’s actions threaten core interests, our ability to rally the support of other countries that share our values will make our response more effective over time.


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