Less than a week ago, a coalition of the US, Britain and France was poised to launch airstrikes on Syria in response to the deployment of chemical weapons. Their joint assessment was that it was highly likely the Assad regime, with the connivance of Russia, had used these weapons against its own people and that this was part of a pattern of behaviour. Days later, targeted and effective bombing attacks took place on chemical weapons sites and facilities in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering by degrading the regime’s capability to manufacture and deploy such weapons and to deter it from doing so in the future. But there was no question of seeking to secure regime change or of involvement in Syria’s civil war.
This crisis, which includes the real threat of escalation into a wider conflict because of the Russians’ involvement on the ground, has inevitably been in the international media spotlight. Now, as there appears to be no overt action so far by Russia in retaliation for what it has termed an act of reckless aggression against a sovereign state, the world’s attention has turned abruptly to the sudden announcement of recent high-level talks between the US and North Korea as a prelude to a possible bilateral presidential summit in the coming weeks to discuss denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Another significant issue currently in the news is a potential trade war between the US and China following President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and China’s immediate response of placing tariffs on a range of American imports. But, as recently as last week, President Xi Jinping made what is seen as a conciliatory gesture amid rising trade tensions by lowering tariffs on certain products like vehicles.
These three important developments have prompted commentators to ponder about the effectiveness of old-fashioned diplomacy compared with the more direct and aggressive manner of the current US president with his well-known braggadocio, bluster and threats in pursuing what he perceives as the nation’s interests on the world stage.
The eternal dilemma in dealing with dictators determined to have their own way is whether to pursue one’s goals by negotiation and appeasement or with force. It has always been accepted that appeasement can be used as an instrument of diplomacy if a long-term objective might be more effectively secured through compromise and concession. But appeasement has acquired a pejorative meaning because of its association with the notorious Munich Conference in 1938 at which Britain and France failed to stand up to Hitler when his aggressive intentions were evident, and the term is now regarded as a sign of irresolution. Nonetheless, negotiation always remains preferable to the use of force as a last resort.
Dictators deride weakness but fear a forceful reaction as they calculate how to achieve their aims without serious opposition. Diplomacy has been thwarted in the case of Syria because at the UN Security Council Russia has used its veto to block the perpetrators from being held to account. So, since this option was exhausted, urgent and direct action by the coalition was needed to defend and uphold the global consensus that chemical weapons should never be used and to bring humanitarian relief to those in extreme distress; but the force applied had to be both proportionate and limited.
According to reports, Mr Putin was taken aback by the strong and concerted response of the international community to the Syrian atrocity as well as, earlier, to the nerve agent attack against the former Russian spy and his daughter in England. Equally, Mr Trump’s tough rhetoric and threats about North Korea’s nuclear programme after years of patient diplomacy has sent a strong message to its leaders that the US now means business in so far as it is prepared to use force. Be that as it may, despite a breakthrough in relations at the top level, careful diplomacy will be required to consolidate any meeting of minds and to secure any lasting commitment to denuclearisation.
To many people, the President’s belligerent approach in dealing with any threat to the rules-based global system is a welcome development because it appears to be working – at least in the short-term – in a world that, ironically, has now become more dangerous than during the Cold War. One possible explanation is that because of his impulsiveness and unpredictability other leaders are genuinely afraid he could follow up his threats and unleash on them the overwhelming might of US military power.
It remains puzzling to some observers that someone who prides himself on doing deals should not utilize better his claimed negotiating skills rather than issue threats in the conduct of international affairs. But perhaps he really believes confrontation and intimidation are more effective in handling dictators – and maybe he is right, but only time will tell.