Our best weapons are words31 July 2014 | by Ivor Roberts
One hundred years ago this week, diplomacy failed and the world descended into war. Outrage at recent events in Gaza and Ukraine may be justified, but although the risks of failure are high we must not abandon diplomatic efforts to find lasting solutions in the world’s trouble spots
As the centenary of the guns of August heralding the start of the First World War approaches, no one can fail to be struck – or deeply alarmed – by how many major outbreaks of violence are taking place in different parts of the world simultaneously. And although today nobody is predicting a general war, perhaps we should remember that only months before the commencement of hostilities in 1914, commentators were assuring readers that a general war would be impossible – because the world had become so economically interdependent. And you thought globalisation was new?
While in 1914 the system of strategic alliances played a major part in turning a little local problem into Armageddon, today the problems are so interlocking yet amorphous that instead of being dragged into a crisis because of one’s alliances, each individual crisis requires interaction with different – and often extremely uncomfortable – bedfellows.
Moreover, while we have been fiercely critical of the failure of diplomatic efforts to prevent a small crisis from snowballing into the horrors of the First World War, the reality today is that, of the raft of problems we face, several are unlikely to respond to the levers of traditional diplomacy.
Consider the case of the newly proclaimed caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. Classic diplomatic negotiation is impossible with a group of jihadists who won’t be happy till they see the black flag of Isis flying over Buckingham Palace. Their more “moderate” irredentist territorial ambitions take in the whole world of Islam, and indeed Andalusia in Spain. Their tolerance of those who take a different view is zero. Hence, Shiite Muslims are put to the sword summarily; Christians have their homes marked, Nazi-style, with the Arabic letter “N” for Nazarene and are forced to convert or be ethnically cleansed, even from cities such as Mosul, where Christianity existed for hundreds of years before Islam came along. The less fortunate face death.
Condemnation from the mainstream Arab states has been muted. They are terrified by the force field of attraction Isis appears to exert, which they fear could easily “infect” their own states. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has almost since its inception been long on rhetoric and short of any meaningful action. The Muslim country which could most effectively counter Isis is Iran, with whom the West has been arm-wrestling for years over its nuclear programme.
But it would be a mistake to conclude gloomily that diplomacy has no place in this area. The spirit of colonialism, imperialism and crusaderism is still perceived to be abroad in the Middle East, thanks most recently to the Iraq war. Any Western military intervention would only be seen as Christianity in its most belligerent form, and would aggravate the already perilous position of the Christian communities of the region. Are we not reaping what we have sown?
As if events in Iraq and Syria were not bleak enough, the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza is also proving impervious to diplomacy. The best that seems to be achievable is the occasional short-lived humanitarian truce, allowing the beleaguered inhabitants of Gaza, surely one of the most miserable spots on earth, some temporary respite to bury their dead, collect some water and stock up with basic foodstuffs.
Hamas, whose stock had fallen sharply in Gaza because of the ever-worsening living conditions and their powerlessness to lift the Israel-Egypt blockade, decided that they could only reverse their decline in popularity by doing what they know best: unleashing a new wave of violence. The victims of this cynical ploy have been overwhelmingly Palestinian civilians, used as human shields by Hamas and forbidden to leave certain areas, even when the Israelis have announced that they were about to be bombed.
Hamas’ gamble appears to be paying off, at least in terms of recovered prestige. They have managed to kill an unprecedented (in recent years) number of Israeli soldiers and demonstrated, with extraordinary braggadocio, through social media their extensive and sophisticated network of tunnels. These have allowed Hamas militants to infiltrate Israel many times, albeit provoking a brutal counter riposte by air and by land.
Israel’s military strategy is clear: to destroy both the tunnels and the capacity of Hamas to rain down a barrage of rockets on their neighbours. But beyond the military objectives, Israel must have an achievable and reasonable political aim. Proportionality has to play a part in any response to the rocket attacks. To mete out massive punishment to civilians haplessly trapped between Hamas’ grotesque human-shield policy and Israeli bombing will not lead to a long-term political solution.
It often seems that Israel has given up on diplomacy: the best it can hope for from its troublesome neighbours is a fragile ceasefire, so it tries to make the cost of breaking it intolerably high – for Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and so on. Where diplomacy is off the agenda, despair fills the vacuum and the cycle of attack and counter-attack will be set to continue. After more than six decades of the existence of the State of Israel, is this the best the international community can do?
Without the baleful distraction of these benighted conflict zones in the Middle East, diplomatic attention would be exclusively focused on Ukraine and the Russian role, surely indisputable, in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight by Russian-backed dissidents or perhaps even by Russian military intelligence themselves. (A horrendous crime, or, as Talleyrand put it, “worse than a crime, a mistake”, but not unique: the USS Vincennes downed an Iranian civilian aeroplane in 1988, killing all 290 civilians on board.)
Economic sanctionS are unlikely to make President Putin back down. He is not a man racked much by self-doubt, willing to change course under public external pressure. Of course we could simply do our best to make Russia an international pariah (the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s populist call for Russia to be stripped of the 2018 World Cup suggests that he doesn’t foresee any diplomatic solution in the next four years).
But if we want to defuse the crisis and reach a reasonable compromise over the future of Ukraine, we are likely to achieve more by engagement and robust private dialogue. The alternative, a Manichaean approach aimed not at engagement but at containment, harks back to the Cold War policy first formulated by the late but celebrated US diplomat George Kennan. If we re-enact that policy today we will create an adversary, when what we desperately need is a partner.
Russia is not a minor player on the world stage. We need its cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation generally and on Iran’s nuclear programme in particular; along with the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, Russia is a key partner in the so-called Middle East Quartet, which is trying to address the basic questions of the Arab-Israel conflict; and the surrender of chemical weapons by Syria was brokered by Russia.
In a world beset by multiple crises in which diplomacy appears to have so little traction, we must begin to unpick the Gordian knot somewhere. So, unpalatable though it may seem, let us, in one area at least where diplomacy has a role to play, not crowd it out.
Outrage, yes. A century ago, Europe was outraged by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. (In London, George V declared court mourning for a week, although a month later Britain was at war with Franz Ferdinand’s uncle Franz Joseph’s dual monarchy.) But we must not adopt
double standards. If we rightly criticise our predecessors of 1914 for their diplomatic failures, we have a duty to deploy diplomacy vigorously but constructively today, even at the risk of failure.
Sir Ivor Roberts is the president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy.
Iron fists and velvet glovesPremium
Manage my subcription hereManage
Sign up for our newsletterSign Up