Exploring the ‘space between’ that is Diplomacy: Syria and US Foreign Policy

Exploring the ‘space between’ that is Diplomacy: Syria and US Foreign Policy

Jill Sargent Russell

12 September 2012


(No, this is not a reference to the Dave Matthews Band tune, as I do not intend to link emo-pop with international relations. Even I have limits. “The tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible” is how one journalist phrased the place of diplomacy in difficult situations.

It is a theme I would like to explore with respect to two critical issues facing the US and the world today. This first piece, on Syria, will argue that although it is the only reasonable alternative, diplomacy is nearly fatally weak in what it can achieve in matters of brutal civil conflict. The second piece, on Iran’s nuclear rise, will argue that diplomacy is not only the best option, but also far more effective than most want to give it credit for being.)

Reading Claire Tomalin’s biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, the story of the first truly self-aware diarist, was an education on many levels. Particularly in the current context, at the point of his life within the English Civil War – which she sweeps over in a breathtaking fashion, likely leaving out many details but still managing to give the event its texture – its tangle of allegiances and issues became especially poignant. In my mind they offered an apt set of images for the increasingly chaotic civil conflict in Syria and the tormented wrangling over what to do that plays out on the stage of international relations.

I am particularly curious at the arguments in favour of intervention, especially American, given that they assume support for the Syrian opposition as if they were latter day Massachusetts Militiamen. To what end does American policy contemplate active intervention on behalf of the forces fighting Assad’s regime? At least for the US, the issues related to this question are critical, especially as I am not certain that there are any good explanations for intervention. First, it is puerile to argue that support for them is part of a stance against oppressive or brutal regimes. It’s quite unnecessary here to list the examples which prove the hypocrisy of such an assertion. (And let us be perfectly clear, the US is not the only power liable to the accusation.) Second, it is equally foolish to posit that the US supports the free political expression of “the people” in all circumstances. Even if popularly elected, American policy will be decidedly less than happy to see Assad followed by the Syrian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is at the better case end of the scenario spectrum of what might come next. Third, and finally, we should not assume that our good intentions and actions will necessarily bear fruit in the way of post-conflict influence or amity. Or that they will be effective to the ends we seek. It’s a mess and there are no good answers in intervention.

And yet we cannot escape the natural response to the images and stories broadcast daily, which seem a siren song impelling some sort of action. The fullness of the policy conundrum which confronts the international community is best laid out in Richard Falk’s “The tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible.”[1] Although it dates from the start of this summer, the issues have not changed, and his piece illustrates the dilemmas facing all options quite well. To wit, doing nothing in the face of the Assad regime’s increasing violence towards its own people – both physical as well as political, in the sense of stifling their sovereign desires – is unconscionable. On the other hand, military intervention is both impractical and terribly fraught in every consideration. Thus, despite its limitations, Falk urges that diplomacy is the best option for the international community. He concludes:

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation.

Or so he wrote. Perhaps he felt he had to support some course of action, because few are willing to contemplate publicly that the only answer is there is nothing to be done.

We are in strange days for international relations, generally, and American foreign policy specifically. The reality is that the end of the Cold War removed the structure which (for good and ill) had shaped international relations and as yet no new paradigm has emerged to take its place. Retreating to generic models which might drive policy, extant options do not seem to serve contemporary needs in situations such as the world is facing in Syria. To wit, the ruthless imposition of a preponderance of power by a single state or coalition of states is untenable. International organizations are only as useful as the members are willing to allow them to be – which is only as much as is left over after each party has considered its own national interest – or more simply put, very little. Alliances are great, but once you deal with the issues among those who already generally agree, you still have the same fundamental problems which bedevil the unitary state confronting the hostile forces without. Balance of power politics requires a firm sense of what needs balancing. And we should all be waking from dreams (or nightmares) of a unipolar world under US hegemony. Realpolitik? What is the reality that must be accepted? National security drove us into Afghanistan, the danger more than proven by the Taliban’s material support of international terrorism, but 11 years on it’s hard to see how that has improved American national security. You can blame mission creep but it is difficult to accept that we could have broken the Taliban’s regime and then walked away – it was this very same vacuum left by the Soviet departure that had led to their rise in the first place. And, notwithstanding its own dubious national security justification, neither has pre-emptive intervention and regime change in Iraq gained us a stable, friendly partner in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the hard truth being learned is that foreigners cannot build other nations. [2]

Thus, for the time being, we may have to accept that there are no easy answers to the horrors of televised civil warfare. In strife-torn Syria, the “space between” so desperately desired by Falk simply may not exist or amount to much. Diplomacy requires leverage, but it seems there is nowhere to stand. Thus we face the bitter irony that having raised our consciousness of events around the world we must now accept the fact that we are quite helpless to do anything that is sensible to such situations. Maybe that is as it should be. As George Kennan famously argued on morality and foreign policy, the latter cannot be driven by the former. [3] For a variety of reasons, national interest is the best inspiration that can or should spur effective intervention. Any other motivations will lead you to policy choices whose consequences are likely worse. Unfortunately, despite its reasonable and rational basis, this means that sometimes you can do nothing except watch a tragedy.


[1] Al Jazeera, May 2012, “Syria: The tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible,” (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/05/20125318233126386.html)

[2] I’ll chime in for the very interesting perspective thrown onto the subject of future Afghanistan by our own Theo Farrell, who offered a cogent review of his work on Radio 4. The findings must be correct because they demand reasonability from all sides, to include my favorite fact - that coming to terms with the Taliban is likely the only means to achieve a relatively stable Afghanistan.

[3] “Morality and Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1985/6. http://www.politics.ubc.ca/fileadmin/user_upload/poli_sci/Faculty/price/...