To repeat the same mistake over and over again is a form of madness. In International Diplomacy, however, this form of madness seems to be the norm.
Or maybe what seems like they are ‘mistakes’ to the ordinary observer are really something more sinister. It is the way, maybe, of how things work in the game of power.
Take, for example, the civil war in Syria. Consider how events unfolded. Recall the positions world leaders took. At the cost of oversimplifying, here is a summary. The Arab Spring began in December, 2010 with protests in Tunisia when crowds, largely of young people, gathered to demand justice for Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who had immolated himself after he was humiliated by the police while trying to eke out a living in the stifling, stratified and corrupt society of his country. The young man became the legendary spark that lights a fire. Bouaizizi’s death, but more so his life leading up to it, had become a shared tragedy not only for his countrymen but for more and more youth throughout the Arabian cultural community of North Africa. After Tunisia, crowds in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, even monarchic Morocco rose, calling for change. There was change, more or less, and what it was is so important that it will not be enough to merely make a mention of in this this place. Another time, surely. But what I do want to bring in, now, here, is how this ‘Arab Spring’ began to transmogrify, ever so suddenly, into a ‘Winter of War.’
Maybe when things began to go was wrong in Egypt. Or was it when we turned the blind eye to what was going on in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But definitely when Syria erupted into civil war, things had gotten bad. In all these countries what was conspicuous by its absence was the leadership of the United States of America, not in its garb as the superpower-ed hegemon of world politics but as the country which had just elected Barack Obama as President.
It started, perhaps, with a conflict of the soul. In the soul of the man that is POTUS, to be exact. The fundamental demand from the squares of Spring was for a freedom built for justice. Surely, this was everything the United States of America stood for, should stand for? So, morally, yes, the USA was with the spirit of the squares. The conflict, however, was this : should we support the freedom of others even when it is against our own interests. And what are ‘our interests’ – aye, therein lies the rub. So began the game. Our interests, the ‘Diplomat’ of realpolitik would say, lie in always asking, before we act, exactly this : what are our interests. Circular as this might be, this reasoning drives all power politics. The calculation of interests in the matrix of war and peace – these are the methods of International Diplomacy.
Libya must be unchained but Bahrain should remain secure, Saudi Arabia must not dither but Syria must die, and freedom is important but only for those who should be free, not at who want to. So POTUS, the Tsar, the high Mandarins, the careful Whisperers, the gallery of Pretenders and Procrastinators, the Weary and the Watchful, all remain divided in their opinions, busy in their calculations and proud of their matrices, while the Winter grows colder and colder still.
There is one line of argument that says that whatever happens in Syria should be of no concern to the world. The argument is one between state sovereignty and global security. The en-blocment of great power opinion on involvement (or interference, depending on the position of the interlocutor) in Syria’s internal affairs might, in a cruel way, be for the good of Syria in the long run. Is it not alright then that the world has remained so divided on how to stop the war in Syria? Some would say it is, I say definitely not. Firstly, so many external parties have played their part admirably in fuelling, if not creating, the conflict.
But most importantly, we need keep it all in context of the tragic costs to the ordinary folk – more and more people are dying every day as violence feeds on violence in a never ending cycle of terror, so many have been, and continue to be, rendered homeless as one of the worst winters (!) in history seeps into our bones, and it keeps going on and on, while the world watches.
To do one thing but aim for another, proclaiming peace here while waging wars there, condoning the Strong Man here while sanctioning another there, selling arms and granting aid, pushing for trade yet pushing out immigrants, fighting terrorists here and funding insurgents there, moving pawn against pawn against pawn on the grand chessboard of the world, all in the Great Game of Power, is this all we should expect of our leaders? What is happening in Syria is not much different from Afghanistan, or from the myriad ‘invented’ crises of the Cold War era, or of the underhand diplomacy of the Colonial Age. But we are so used to it – that is the nature of politics, or that is the nature of people-who-are-always-killing-each-other, who they are, exactly, their names and identities, changes from time to time, in name or definition, as suits the script of the politics of that time.
What is my point really? This is not a structured argument, I do not propose a plan, I have no grand vision, but I am exasperated. Even confused, maybe. In 1492, the sailor made his voyage, inaugurating a new age, of discovery, of possibility, of change, laying the foundations for a new kind of man, as rational, as enlightened, as brave, greeting stranger peoples, connecting unknown worlds, heralding modernity, and nothing would be the same. Yet in 1492 also, began the Great War of Civilisations, new enemies, new conquests, new lows for humanity, from the conquistador to the machine gun to the atom bomb, from racism to slavery to genocide, from the colony to the nation to the empire, we have shamed our dreams. What is my point, really? This is not an argument. But something surely is wrong if we go on doing the same thing over and over again. Some kind of madness.