In foreign policy, there are many ways to do more with less. Policy makers can, for example, use a mix of economic leverage and coercive diplomacy to get the results they want without a conflict or a trade war. In 2013, we will surely see more of these less risky, more cost-effective tactics as US, European, and Chinese officials resist entanglements abroad to focus their attention on domestic issues. But if they learnt anything from 2012, they will resist the temptation to pass off empty ultimatums as forceful foreign policy.
Consider some examples. The Obama administration has warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that “there will be consequences” if he uses chemical weapons to kill rebels. Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, says that “the whole world is watching”. Unfortunately, the world sees Washington drawing a red line that appears to imply that Mr Assad’s ongoing use of conventional weapons to murder his own people will not provoke a consequential response. It suspects that Mr Assad’s government will continue its fight to the finish, far more afraid that opposition forces will seize the capital than that Mr Obama will order airstrikes.
Mr Obama also says that the US will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. But this line was drawn mainly to protect the president’s political reputation at home. It will not persuade Iran’s leaders to renounce their nuclear plans.
The US (and the rest of the world) can take a lesson on this subject from Angela Merkel. Germany’s chancellor has carefully chosen both her words and deeds throughout the eurozone crisis. That strategy has helped keep negotiations on track while she maintains healthy approval ratings at home. Those who draw lines in the sand put their own credibility at risk.
In 2013, the US and Chinese governments will use pledges of regulatory action to gain leverage in commercial competition and to manage the risk of conflict in cyberspace. China and its neighbours will continue to trade threats over competing claims in the waters that separate them. American and European officials will demand that Iran make a deal on its nuclear programme. EU officials will insist that governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy must keep their reform processes on track. Governments in the Middle East will tell one another to mind their own business. India and Pakistan will exchange warnings over Afghanistan as Nato accelerates the drawdown of its troops there.
But only ultimatums that do not impose significant costs or risks on those who issue them will be taken seriously.
The writer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, and author of ‘Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World’