A Bad Spell of Big Power Behavior

A Bad Spell of Big Power Behavior

 BEIRUT — This has been a revealing but worrying few days for the exercise of power by some of the world’s strongest countries. China showed the world that it could be just as silly as other powers in trying to use economic sanctions as punitive diplomatic tools. Hilary Clinton showed that a woman can be just as idiotic as a man when articulating foreign policy principles that also relate to the use of sanctions to change the behavior of other countries. The worst moment of the week, however, was the sight of the snake-like Tony Blair once again showing us how otherwise intelligent, articulate leaders can also comfortably splash around in the underbrush of human deceit and political arrogance.


These three incidents remind us that our world usually operates on the basis of power politics, not on the basis of law or morality. The strong use their power to pursue policies that they believe will serve their national interests. If in the process they also indulge in hypocrisy, illusion, and crass, self-interested double standards, well that is too bad for the rest of the world. It is useful to note these things when they occur, if only to keep seeking more effective ways of dealing with the world’s problems than through military force and diplomatic arm-twisting.


The Chinese and American use of economic sanctions are fascinating because they are both so transparently destined to fail, yet they are attempted nevertheless. The United States signaled in the past week that it was moving away from its policy of "diplomatic engagement" with Iran to resolve issues related to Iran’s nuclear industry, and instead would now work with other powers to apply greater sanctions on Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, "As we move away from the engagement track that has not produced the result that some had hoped for, and move forward the sanctions and pressure track, China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf from which they receive a significant percent of its oil supplies."


This intriguing American policy seems aimed at demonstrating primarily that Washington can bundle a series of distinct foreign policy failures into a single grand show of serial incompetence. The attempt to pressure both Iran and China through the use of punitive sanctions and threats is unlikely to work now because it has not worked in the past. These two countries, in particular, are unlikely to submit to American threats because they define their foreign policy partly on the basis of standing up to the United States and its allies, defying and disregarding American threats, and countering every American move with a gesture of their own that tries to show Washington the futility of its ways. Why the Obama administration would resort to such simple-minded and ineffective gestures remains slightly mysterious.


In the Iranian case, every American-orchestrated move in recent years to pressure, isolate or punish Iran through the use of sanctions has triggered Iranian counter-moves that usually include measures to expand or speed up their nuclear development plans. The core problem that continues to plague American-Iranian and, more generally, Western-Iranian, relations is the refusal to address the core national security issues that matter to Iran, including dropping the threats of military attacks and applying the nuclear non-proliferation treaty’s clauses that allow all countries to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Far from engaging Iran, as Clinton said the US has done, Washington has mainly devised ever more creative but unsuccessful means of pressuring and threatening Iran. A genuine negotiation that addresses the bottom line needs of all sides has yet to be attempted.


China, for its part, is retaliating against the American decision to make a massive armaments sale to Taiwan by boycotting those American firms that are selling the weapons systems in question. This seems to mark the entry of China into the world of Big Power Dumb Diplomacy, because the idea that such retaliatory-targeted sanctions will cause any change in American foreign policy is fanciful. It would be intriguing to discover if somewhere in the White House or the State Department some bright young men and women are making the point to Obama and Clinton that Iran will react to American sanctions in exactly the same way the United States will react to Chinese sanctions — with ridicule and defiance.


As for Tony Blair reappearing at the Iraq war enquiry commission in London and saying he would again invade, kill, maim, devastate and unleash unending chaos on a Herculean scale, well, that is just a reminder that some truly awful things in life never really go away. They just reappear in different guises and venues to haunt us, like ghosts that hover above our world reminding us that part of being human is our destiny to suffer deceit, violence, and criminality on a regular basis.



Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.


Copyright © 2010 Rami G. Khouri – (Distributed by Agence Global)