NEW DELHI — Mao Zedong once famously called for the Chinese to “let a hundred flowers bloom.” Soon, however, he was recoiling from what he saw as a chaos of competing ideas. Today, the world seems to be entering a period when, if not a hundred, at least a dozen varieties of Weltpolitik are being pursued by great and emerging powers alike. Reconciling these competing strategic visions of the world, in particular of global crisis, will make international diplomacy more complicated than ever.
The intervention by Turkey and Brazil into the globally divisive issue of Iran’s nuclear program is but the latest, and also the clearest, sign of this new element in global affairs. In May, the Iranian, Turkish and Brazilian leaders met in Tehran to conclude an agreement that would supposedly have Iran deposit 1,200 kg of lightly enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey, which, in exchange, would send 120 kg of enriched fuel to be used in Iran’s research reactor.
Russia proposed this kind of swap earlier, but Iran declined the offer, and the version agreed with Brazil and Turkey was likewise intended to forestall Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used for nuclear warheads. But its other intention was probably to stymie American efforts to adopt new United Nations sanctions on Iran.
It is too soon to tell if Iran’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons has been delayed. The International Atomic Energy Agency has not ruled against the agreement, and I am informed that the Brazilian/Turkish brokered deal does not violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran, as a signatory, is obliged to adhere. Nevertheless, the effort to pre-empt American strategy clearly failed, as new U.N. sanctions were implemented earlier this month.
As the deal was intended to avoid a nuclear standoff with Iran, why was there so much outrage in the United States and the West? I fear it is because the U.S. found itself denied its primacy in setting global policy on Iran. Instead of trying to explore the possibilities presented by the Brazilian/Turkish opening, the U.S. quickly pushed the U.N. Security Council for more sanctions (the fourth round so far) on Iran. This forced Brazil and Turkey, both currently nonpermanent members of the Security Council, to vote against the sanctions resolution.
The result? This vital vote was robbed of unanimity (Lebanon also opposed it).
The U.N. sanction vote was also heavily influenced by another small country with a Weltpolitik: Israel. In February, a high-level Israeli delegation visited Beijing to present the Chinese leadership with “evidence” of Iran’s atomic ambitions. The Israelis then explained to their hosts — in considerable detail — the potential economic consequences for China if an Israeli strike on Iran should become necessary in order to stop Iran from fulfilling its “nuclear ambitions.”
China appears to have taken the message to heart, as it voted in favor of sanctions on Iran for the first time. Iran responded by calling China’s vote “two faced.”
The emerging stew of Weltpolitik thickened even more with Israel’s pre-emptive move in international waters to stop a flotilla supposedly bringing relief aid to blockaded Gaza. For it was on a Turkish flagged ship that Israeli forces killed nine people, causing a near-rupture in Israeli-Turkish relations.
To be sure, this complex web of interconnected events reflects the declining global role of the U.S. But it also demonstrates the robust assertion of national interest by new players on the global scene.
Brazil, Turkey, and, yes, Iran are all clearly keen to demonstrate their political and foreign-policy independence. Brazil wants to prove that it deserves a permanent seat on the Security Council. Turkey seeks to re-establish its Islamic identity and “Ottoman” influence over the Middle East, thereby flexing its diplomatic muscles for a European Union that has all but rejected Turkish membership. And Iran simply wants to show once again that it will not kowtow to the “Great Satan.”
All of these motivations critically challenge U.S. global diplomatic primacy. But America had better get used to these types of diplomatic cat’s cradles. For there are other powers, both emerging and established, with global foreign policies of their own — India, Indonesia and Japan. And regional players like South Africa, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and South Korea among others, will also have to be reckoned with in future regional disputes.
This increasingly complex web of intersecting national interests is the face of international diplomacy in the 21st century. Ancient rivalries and atavistic feuds may or may not be part of this; only future crisis will tell. But this amalgam of competing strategic visions probably marks the end of America’s post-Cold War power.
With the entire world affected by turmoil in the Persian Gulf and greater Middle East, perhaps that is all to the good. Surely, the national interests of the U.S. and the West are not the only ones that matter. Why, then, should the rest of the world leave the resolution of these disputes to America alone?
The era of U.S. diplomatic hegemony has drawn to a close. And it would be a grave mistake to think that a condominium between the U.S. and China will impose global order in the way that the Cold War-era U.S./USSR superpower rivalry did. Too many powerful countries now feel able to flex their diplomatic muscles in defense of their interests. Mao’s hundred flowers may have bloomed only briefly, but today’s myriad species of Weltpolitik are certain to bloom perennially.
Jaswant Singh, a former Indian foreign minister, finance minister and defense minister, is the author of “Jinnah: India — Partition — Independence.” © 2010 Project Syndicate.
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