Old-fashioned diplomacy is back, but it is already out of time

Diplomatic mechanisms may not be able to address the worst global problems

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There is nostalgia in the air. To an extent, it comes around every September when the UN General Assembly is in session, with its vintage feel and its opportunity for every state, large or small, to enjoy its moment in the sun. But this year the buzz is livelier and more positive than it has been for a long time. There is more than a whisper that big-power diplomacy is on its way back. And it is hard to dispute the evidence.

This week the General Assembly heard the US and Iranian presidents hold out the prospect of an end not just to their 34-year-old bilateral diplomatic stand-off, but to the nuclear dispute that reinforced Iran’s alienation from the West. Yesterday, the US Secretary of State and the Iranian foreign minister were locked in meetings, trying to maintain the momentum and explore where those stated good intentions might lead. This is state-to-state diplomacy of the most traditional kind.

Then there is Israel-Palestine – otherwise wearily termed the Middle East peace process, so remote is the prospect of actual peace. Once he was confirmed as US Secretary of State, John Kerry turned his attention to this half-century old conundrum with a will not seen since Bill Clinton’s last desperate efforts to hold his peace process together. Kerry, some say, is to be seen out and about in Israel these days more often than the country’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nor will Kerry’s efforts necessarily be in vain. The climate in Israel is more conducive to an agreement than it has been; the Palestinians – if they can scale back their own differences – are in more constructive mood, while the turmoil elsewhere in the region has made this narrower Middle East peace look, by comparison, feasible.

And, third, there is the diplomatic surprise that directly galvanised this year’s General Assembly. Two weeks ago, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the US Secretary of State stood side by side in Geneva – yes, Geneva is back, too – to announce the outline of an agreement that would lead to the destruction of all Syria’s chemical weapons.

The deal, which also averted US air strikes and rescued Barack Obama from a large domestic political hole of his own making, represented the best of diplomatic coups: success wrested from the clutches of multiple failure. It was the very indirect consequence of the sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb that left more than a thousand people dead and unleashed international calls for something to be done. As it turned out, something was done, but not the short, sharp military punishment that Obama and his French and British allies had demanded.

The agreement in Geneva led to the widespread judgement, sometimes approving and sometimes not, that not just diplomacy, but Russia, too, was back. A senior Russian politician speaking on a Moscow television talk show last week hazarded joyfully that “the seeds of a new international political order” had been sown at Geneva – an international order in which Russia had a role.

Russia, of course, has a particular interest in a return to old-fashioned big-power diplomacy. For the past 20 years, as seen from a Western perspective, it has been preoccupied with its own internal traumas. It has been nominally represented in the Middle East peace process, the six-party talks on North Korea, in the G8 and the G20, but has rarely made its presence felt. It was only at the UN, thanks to its permanent seat on the Security Council, that this pale shadow of the Soviet-era superpower could throw its weight around – and then only to negative effect, with its veto.

Moscow would present a rather different picture. It would complain that Russia was repeatedly side-lined and its weakness cynically exploited by the West through those years. From the expansion of Nato into east and central Europe, to the bombing of Serbia, to the Georgia war, to the military intervention in Libya, it would say that promises were broken and Russia’s legitimate interests ignored. Moscow feared something similar was about to happen with Syria, until it used its good offices with Damascus to clinch the agreement on chemical weapons. The deal, so it seemed, made Russia an equal partner with the United States, at least at this particular table.

But it is not just the Russians who like what they hope could be a return to big-power diplomacy. For many others the prospect affords a reassuring and familiar framework in which they know how to behave. And if it returns the Security Council to prominence – a body that veered from irrelevance to playing catch-up when George Bush was US President – its permanent members like that, too. It suits Obama, who regards his mission as to end wars rather than start them. And it suits Britain and France whose influence in the real world has waned, but who find themselves, like Russia, potentially back where they feel, by virtue of history and influence, that they belong.

The trouble is that this cannot be the end of the story. Even in the best of all possible worlds – a world where President Bashar al-Assad complies with every dot and comma of the chemical weapons convention; where Israel and Palestine finally accept a version of the two-state solution: and where Iran is permitted to develop civil nuclear power, while forswearing any weapons ambitions – there are many big conflicts, both in this region and elsewhere, that will remain intractable. It is not at all clear that conventional diplomatic mechanisms will be much use in solving them.

It would, of course, be an enormous plus if Iran could be brought into the regional diplomatic tent, as it would be if a Middle East peace agreement stopped Israel from being a regional pariah. But neither development, however welcome in its own terms, is likely to stem the tumult that grips the whole region in the wake of the optimistically described Arab Spring.

There are elemental forces here – religion, ethnicity, nationhood and modernisation – that will not be tamed by conventional big-power diplomacy; they will probably have to be left to play themselves out.

A return to old-fashioned UN diplomacy may also serve only to underline how unsuited the United Nations and its present structures are to address the conflicts of today’s – and tomorrow’s – world. When communism collapsed and the Cold War ended, it was briefly argued that international power would shift from security to economics, and that new global management mechanisms would be needed to reflect that. This has not yet happened, or at least not to the extent that the UN has been displaced by a revamped World Trade Organisation, and the recent stumbling of the emerging economies (not just Brazil, Russia, India, China, but Turkey and others) suggests that it might not.

If it is a long-term trend for the US to become less assertive, however, and the UN is now to play a bigger role, the composition and powers of the Security Council will –rightly – come under renewed scrutiny. This is unlikely to be good news for the three smaller states – Russia, Britain and France – all of which are greatly diminished compared with 50 years ago. What is more, if the US does become self-sufficient in energy, that might expose how far its years of dependence on the Middle East distorted the global diplomatic map.

The only certainty in this uncertain world is that other regions will demand a greater say in its management and that their concerns – internal strife, first-world protectionism and contested borders – may not be ours. In short, any rejoicing or relief at the return of big-power diplomacy is shortsighted in the extreme.

And if Russia is pinning its hopes on a new international political order in which it has a role, that new order might turn out to be as little to its liking as it could be to ours.

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