By Maleeha Lodhi
October 06, 2013
The Syrian crisis dominated debate at an international conference last month in Stockholm that reviewed a range of global strategic issues. Organised by the London-based Institute of Strategic Studies, the meeting found one question echoing in many sessions. Will the aversion of war-weary Western publics to overseas military intervention, that is driving their governments towards "restraint", turn out to be a transient or a longer-term trend?
Many participants asked if a decade of hyper interventionism by the US-led West — involving long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — had now swung the pendulum in the other direction, into reluctance to get involved in conflicts abroad. One speaker described the US as a "hesitant and selective superpower", and depicted the present Western posture as having moved from hyperactivity to inaction, even paralysis. Some cautioned this should not be read as "isolationism". It only meant Washington will be more selective in its engagements. Others saw this as the consequence of lack of leadership and argued that this might be a passing phase.
More thoughtful speakers, however, interpreted this to indicate deeper currents caused by several factors. One was the inefficacy of military action itself and the inability to achieve desired outcomes, as Iraq and Afghanistan amply exemplified. The anti-interventionist mood in the West was the consequence of three factors, argued Philip Stephens of the
Financial Times: One, public opinion that is urging governments to shun foreign entanglements; two, economics and the preoccupation with fixing financial problems; and three, US dominance is now being contested by the rise of other powers, which are pushing back on issues like respect for state sovereignty and non-interference. For these reasons, the impulse to "draw back" will strengthen.
The view that limited goals will flow from limited Western influence reverberated at the conference. This also figured as a theme in the recently published annual IISS Strategic Survey. John Chipman, its director general, reiterated this at the conference by casting 2012 as "the year of living tactically", where the constant flow of events constrained the ability of governments to exercise control over foreign policy outcomes. This left no room for strategy, much less grand strategy. One of the big challenges ahead, Chipman said, was how to conduct a sustainable foreign policy when the demands of crisis management were so urgent. This urged modesty of strategic ambition rather than strategic conceit, which would be far more dangerous.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt agreed. There was absence of strategic thinking and action — more so in the 24/7 and social media environment. Bildt also referred to international scepticism about using force to achieve even limited goals as in Syria. More importantly, he pointed to three diplomatic opportunities opening up the Middle East that could have hopeful consequences if seized: Syria, Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Many of these points were picked up in a session, in which I was also a speaker, titled "Who manages international security?" The panellists agreed that, at the moment, nobody managed global security on any consistent basis. One speaker lamented that the US was no longer able to play the role of global policeman, while others asked if drift would mark this phase of a world in uncertain transition.
My remarks focused on the need to transition to a rules-based international order that can produce solutions supported by consensus and where the management of security is a shared, not unilateral enterprise. The security of some should not be deemed more important than that of others. Exceptionalism was not the answer. Inclusion is.
The only solutions were multilateral, I argued. They were more difficult and slower to achieve. They also meant accommodating multiple interests, different cultures and values. Only fair and just solutions would endure. In our interdependent world, security needed to be managed by adherence to principles rather than power. Most of these principles have been prescribed in the UN Charter and other international instruments. They now needed to be applied in practice.
In an insightful presentation, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry laid out several lessons from American's intervention in Afghanistan. From these lessons his cautionary advice for future interventions was simple: "look before you leap".
This reinforced another theme that emerged at the conference. At such an unsettled juncture for a non-polar world, where no one had the power to determine outcomes, it was time for humility and a departure from the phase of hubris that neither gave the world stability nor helped the West secure its goals.