Things are not going well
Things are not going well in many parts of the world:
- The Syrian peace talks ended at an impasse over the agenda. The regime wants to talk terrorism. The opposition wants to talk transition. The US is looking for options.
- Ukraine’s peaceful protests are ending in an explosion of violence. Russia is financing and encouraging the government. The US is ineffectually urging restraint.
- The UN has documented crimes against humanity in North Korea. No one has the foggiest notion what to do about a regime that has now starved, tortured and murdered its citizens for more than six decades.
- Egypt is heading back to military rule. The popular General Sisi is jailing both his Muslim Brotherhood and secularist oppositions. Terrorism is on an upswing.
- Libya’s parliament has decided to overstay its mandate. A new constitution-writing assembly will be chosen in elections tomorrow, but in the meanwhile violence is on the increase and oil production down.
- Yemen’s president has short-circuited the constitutional process altogether. He announced a Federal structure that divides the South, whose secessionists reject the idea.
- Afghanistan’s President Karzai is putting at risk relations with the US, because he is trying despite the odds to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.
- Nationalism is heating up in Japan, South Korea and China. Decades of peace in Asia are at risk as various countries spar over ocean expanse and the resources thought to lie underneath.
- Nuclear talks with Iran are facing an uphill slog. The interim agreement is being implemented, but prospects for a comprehensive and permanent solution are dim.
- Israel/Palestine negotiations on a framework agreement seem to be going nowhere. Israel is expanding settlements and increasing its demands. Palestine is still divided (between Gaza and the West Bank) and unable to deliver even if an agreement can be reached.
For the benefit of my Balkans readers, I’ll add:
Bosnia’s citizens are demanding reforms, but its political leaders are trying to make the complaints ethnic and the international community is divided on how to respond.
Ian Bremmer would say this list reflects the G-zero world, that is a world in which the United States is no longer playing a hegemonic role and keeping order.
That is true, but it is not the whole truth. President Obama will be in Mexico today, for a meeting with its president and the prime minister of Canada. They are preparing for the two regional trade negotiations: one across the Pacific and one across the Atlantic. This, too, is an important part of today’s reality: trade and investment matter more than ever before. America, in order to exert its power, needs to restore its economic strength. President Obama is not mistaken in believing that he needs to triage the world’s problems and conserve his efforts for the most important of them.
So which are the most important? Iran’s nuclear program is clearly his number one priority. Israel/Palestine is probably number two.
I’d put Syria at number three. Why? Because continuation of the war will increase the risks to Lebanon and Iraq (and eventually also Jordan and Turkey) as well as strengthen extremists throughout the Arab world. President Obama doesn’t want to get more deeply involved in Syria, for fear of getting bogged down there. It will take a generation or more to rebuild the Syrian state, as my very knowledgeable and well-informed breakfast companion told me this morning.
What is to be done in Syria? I’ve got a piece written on options that I wouldn’t want to foreshadow too explicitly, but suffice it to say that there are still lots of them. We have not exhausted either the diplomatic or the military tools available. If the president wants to do something, he can. Failure to act more forcefully will help Russia. It will also make us miss the opportunity to weaken Iran and to bolster America’s relations with the Gulf.
America is not good at walking and chewing gum at the same time. But it needs to learn how.