Friday, August 22, 2014
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The Geneva Conversion

DENVER – The agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons reached by Russia and the United States is important not so much for what it could mean on the ground – which remains to be seen as inspectors begin to flow into Syria and, we hope, chemical-weapons stockpiles begin to be destroyed. Rather, the agreement’s main significance consists in the fact that it was struck at all: US Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva, that most traditional of diplomatic venues, and cut a deal on an issue of intense mutual interest.

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, the arrangements to remove chemical weapons from Syria will, one hopes, begin a new era in which the US and Russia work together on other pressing global issues as well. A cooperative US-Russia relationship is essential if the international system, now almost dysfunctional, is to work properly in the future.

The agreement on Syria could accomplish something else: Americans might recognize that, lo and behold, there are other ways to solve problems than by dropping bombs. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clumsy foray into the American debate infuriated many Americans (including me), but it was certainly a teachable moment. Many outside the US thought it was high time that someone offered America a taste of its own paternalism – and even better that that someone was Putin, a politician who has, to put it gently, his own set of foibles.

So Americans might want to tone down their anti-Putin rhetoric. As a practical matter, Putin certainly does not seem to be suffering any adverse domestic political consequences from his bashing in the US. More broadly, America’s supply of moralistic – and even churlish – advice to the rest of the world has greatly exceeded international demand for it. And its willingness to engage militarily as an early step, rather than as a last resort, has alienated many around the world. No amount of “Muslim outreach” and other public diplomacy alone will change that.

Support for insurgencies is a case in point. Many countries – Syria qualifies as a poster child in this regard – suffer under miserable, brutal governments. But backing an armed rebellion is a major step, especially when the rebels whom one is backing have, as in Syria, started something that they may not be able to finish.

This is not to say that the US should never support insurgencies against established governments; but doing so is almost always a lonely affair, without any realistic expectation of enlisting many partners in the process. Such policy choices should be made rarely, and with a clear understanding that support for the violent overthrow of a government is not very popular around the world.

The road that got the US to the Geneva agreement with the Russians was long and windy, and may indeed have done some damage to America’s standing in the world, even though the outcome was better than any other on offer. To put that process behind it, the US needs to follow up with the Russians to establish a broader pattern of long-overdue cooperation.

Call it a “reset” button – like the one then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave to Lavrov in 2009 – or whatever one wants. But it should be more than a gag gift. The reset must occur in the context of efforts to solve real problems together.

A good place to start would be to seek a Syrian peace deal that enables the country’s different communities – now butchering each other – to live in one state. Maybe the US is right that Syria’s brutal and mendacious president, Bashar al-Assad, cannot be part of any eventual solution. But there is time to figure that out, and Syria’s own 2014 election might offer a face-saving way out of that conundrum. A role for the Russians could help coax Assad into offering concessions that he will not make as long as he views the process as one that is intended to destroy him.

At this point, any peace process is a long shot, but so is the prospect of either side winning militarily, with or without the arrival of American arms for the rebels. The alternative of allowing this fight to the death to play out – a proposal heard daily on American talkathon television – is not worthy of our civilization. Such a scenario could amount to fighting to the last Syrian child.

The world needs all hands on deck – not only Russian and American, but also Arab, Chinese, European, and anyone else’s. The beacon of hope shining from Geneva should guide us all.

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  1. Commentedhari naidu

    Hill was US diplomat who dealt with N Korean dictator....

    So what he's saying here is fundamentally realpolitik: namely, US must return to UNSC and deal with its counterparts - Russia and, of course, China. Otherwise, there will be endless civil war and killing in Syria....

    Putin argued against US Exceptionalism in global politics.

    It really behooves Obama to refrain from paying to the neocons, either-or strategy in ME, and finally do the nitty gritty diplomacy under UN Charter...and return to normality in international relations between sovereign nation-states (after 9/11).

    If Iran can become an interlocutor on Syrian dialogue between the opposing parties, along with Russian influence on Assad, and this could become a win-win policy for The Pasha (Obama!).

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I fully agree with the writer.
    The significance of this deal goes way beyond Syria, regardless of how successfully it is going to be implemented.
    As we all agree, we evolved into a global world, which means that individuals and nations are interconnected and interdependent at all levels of human activity.
    In such a system only mutually responsible and mutually complementing decision making and action can achieve results.
    We can see how the "might" and influence of the US is declining.
    Some people suggest now Russia, with or without China will take over.
    How could that be possible?
    What do these countries possess what the US or even Europe does not have?
    A charismatic leader? What can a single person or even a government do in today's modern, global world?
    The US is not declining in importance because they became weaker, or because they have a "lame duck" President as some papers suggested recently.
    The changes are evolutionary, in a global, integral system everything becomes round, equal, whether people want it or not, strong natural laws operate on us, we are part of the system.
    Of course even this agreement was done based on self-interest, and the "actors" are already scheming how to exploit it for themselves, but even agreeing, uniting "badly" is already a step forward, as later, very soon all parties will see that actually working mutually will truly solve problems, and it will become beneficial for all of us together.
    After all, when we are locked into the same interdependent network it cannot happen in any other way.
    At first people will unite selfishly, as they see this is how they can prosper from now on, later, gradually we will learn that actually the mutual cooperation, complementing each other will become more important than self-benefit as it makes us qualitatively different, "more human", more successful, safer.

  3. CommentedKir Komrik

    Thanks for your take on this,

    "A cooperative US-Russia relationship is essential if the international system, now almost dysfunctional, is to work properly in the future."

    It has and always will be dysfunctional unless and until an accountable, just and durable global rule of law exists, imo.

    I think the American public should take note of the fact that Putin was acting in his own countries interests; that selfish actor principle that comes with global anarchy. That means that his NYT op-ed was propaganda, nothing more.

    - kk

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