The diplomatic news from the Middle East is disheartening, with roadblocks and detours from Tel Aviv to Tehran.
These setbacks illuminate how global politics places very different regional demands on the formulation and execution of US foreign policy. American statecraft is focused primarily on high-stakes US diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. To be seen as truly effective, Washington must engage seriously on the Middle East peace process despite the fact that the region has long been seen as the graveyard of its diplomatic hopes and dreams.
Still, the seriousness of Washington’s diplomacy continues to be judged largely on whether the US is prepared to expend enormous energy and high-level capital on the quest for a transformative Middle East peace. The US is also leading an intricate, last-chance effort to roll back Iranian nuclear ambitions despite lingering doubts.
Meanwhile the regional context has grown infinitely more complex, with the US focus necessarily shifting from dealing almost exclusively with autocratic Middle Eastern regimes to a much more fluid and challenging terrain involving competing factions vying for political power across a disorienting and unstable area. The bar for effective diplomacy in the Middle East has never been higher, nor the challenges more daunting. Still, the very notion of durable American global power demands an enduring diplomatic ambition for the Middle East.
In Europe, what is required for a successful American diplomacy is evolving. In the past, it entailed focused attention on institution-building on the continent. More recently, it has involved joint efforts in out-of-area pursuits, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Europe has largely withdrawn from these conflicts and struggled with economic crisis, Atlanticist ambitions have receded and are today quite modest.
Then there are the diplomatic tasks for dealing with a rising Asia. It has commonly been said that the most important ingredient in a successful American foreign policy in Asia is just showing up – and indeed a good attendance record matters. There was some concern in Asian capitals about the cancellation of President Barack Obama’s trip in October but, beneath the obvious disappointment, there was understanding about the political necessities and a strong desire for continuing American engagement.
Increasingly, a successful American foreign policy requires more than just pitching up for meetings and wearing garish shirts for the photo opportunity. Engagement in Asia requires greater dexterity across a number of fronts: diplomatic, political, economic, and security. There is a profound need to integrate every element of American power and to deal with matters with nuance and subtlety – not always prominent American diplomatic traits. Indeed, the region expects the US to engage proactively and seriously with a rising China while hedging quietly and carefully with the surrounding region should things in Beijing take a difficult turn.
However, what is interesting about Asia – in contrast with the Middle East and Europe – is that diplomatic achievement is more attainable. This is not a reason for tilting towards Asia but it can serve as a bit of an enticement. Indeed, a sustained engagement strategy in Myanmar, a multifaceted approach to institution-building, high-level and effective dialogue with China, a collective vigilance with respect to North Korean diplomacy and a successful conclusion of a trade round in Asia can have remarkably positive consequences elsewhere, notably on the tougher and more demanding contours of Middle East diplomacy.
This suggests a degree of phasing is in order. It is better to confront the myriad challenges of the Middle East peace process, Iran’s nuclear programme and Syrian diplomacy on a foundation of successful engagement in Asia, rather than turning to Asia after setbacks in the Middle East.
Overall, the global demands for an engaged and creative American diplomacy are growing, not declining. As a consequence, the US can ill-afford fundamentally to favour any one of the dominant diplomatic arenas, and yet Asia offers the best chance for success precisely because our role is so essential. This in turn can translate into diplomatic capital that can be used elsewhere – notably on the daunting challenges of the Middle East.