World’s suspicions bedevil US

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

17 March 2006

A little while ago I heard a distinguished diplomat remark that following a short interlude during the 1990s, we were living again in a bipolar world. On one side, as before, stood the US. On the other, anti-Americanism had taken the place of the Soviet Union as the principal countervailing force in global affairs.

I am not sure this provides a complete description of the jagged contours of today’s geopolitical landscape. But a glance at the Middle East tells you what the diplomat was thinking. The bloody insurgency in Iraq, the fires raging in the Palestinian territories and Tehran’s pursuit of its nuclear ambitions all speak of hostility towards the US.

Listen closely to the conversations of Europe’s political classes and you catch a more muted resentment. Official bridges have been rebuilt since the transatlantic rupture over the Iraq invasion. But there is a reflex, particularly among European liberals, that says that if Washington takes one position, it is good politics to occupy the opposing ground.

The above is intended as descriptive rather than judgmental. As it happens, I do think that the foreign policy pursued by those gathered around Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, has done immeasurable damage to America’s moral authority and to its national interest. I would also guess, though, that this view is a commonplace in the state department.

On the other hand, it is absurd to treat anti-Americanism as an intelligent, or somehow moral, response to the mistakes of the US administration. Too many Europeans travel on the road that ends up casting al-Qaeda jihadis and Ba’athists in Iraq as freedom fighters, and a repressive theocracy in Tehran as the harmless guardian of Iranian dignity.

Likewise in Palestine. The sensible strategy after the Palestinian elections is to allow Hamas time and space to exchange, if it so intends, suicide vests for politics. But just because the demand that Hamas offers evidence of peaceful intent comes loudest from Israel and the US, we should not pretend it is unreasonable.

That said, the US cannot escape the consequences of its past behaviour. Washington needs to acknowledge that suspicion of its intentions has become one of the most powerful facts of geopolitics. The price of the hubristic unilateralism of George W. Bush’s first term is being paid in broad mistrust of the administration’s motives. Mr Bush’s new national security strategy affirms democratic transformation as a leitmotif of US foreign policy. That should be something for allies to celebrate. Instead, the response is scepticism.

None of this augurs well for a coherent international response to what the new US strategy identifies as the most serious threat to global security: the presumed pursuit by the present regime in Iran of a nuclear weapons capability.

Thus far the so-called EU 3 – Britain, Germany and France – have worked well with the US in assembling the broad coalition that voted for Iran’s arraignment before the United Nations Security Council. It cannot have been comfortable for Tehran that countries such as Brazil, India and Egypt joined Russia and China in backing referral to the UN.

The strength of coalition marks acknowledgment of the real dangers. Even putting aside the ugly rantings of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president, Tehran’s acquisition of the bomb would be dangerously destabilising. If the present international non-proliferation regime looks threadbare, a nuclear-armed Iran would tear it to shreds.

Now, though, the diplomacy gets trickier. The opportunity lies in the discomfort that most Iranians feel at being branded a pariah state. The country is at once more pluralist and outward looking than the present regime allows. Standing up to the US in defence of Iran’s right to nuclear technology is one thing. International isolation another.

Nor, in spite of the present rush of oil revenues, is Iran without economic problems. Much of its capital is exported. It needs investment, and technology, to modernise its oil industry. There are not enough jobs for the 750,000 young people joining the labour market every year. Many of the best educated emigrate.

Diplomatic pressures aimed at the regime, however, will be felt slowly and unevenly. The western diplomats mapping the course at the UN acknowledge that the commitment to pursue the nuclear programme runs far deeper than Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. And the closer the international community comes to imposing painful sanctions on Iran, the more fragile the consensus will become.

Russia’s support for the present UN process is conditional and linked in the short term to Moscow’s anxiety to ensure that the forthcoming Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg is a success. China has made it clear it will not sacrifice its energy interests in Iran to punitive measures. Even among the EU3 governments there are doubts whether economic sanctions would actually work. They might buttress rather than undercut the ultras in Tehran.

Here we return to the broader doubts about US motives. The White House says the UN diplomacy must succeed in order to avoid a confrontation. The suspicion of many others in the international community is that Washington sees the diplomatic process as a tedious precursor to military action.

European diplomats who have worked closely with the US administration in recent months say they have detected no such intent – a view voiced publicly this week by Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary. Others are not so sure, pointing to the dissonance between the measured approach of state department officials and the bellicose language of Mr Cheney.

Here lies Washington’s dilemma. With some justice it can argue that keeping all options open reinforces the chances that diplomacy might work. But if others suspect the UN process has been framed as it was with Iraq, to provide cover for subsequent military action, the coalition will fracture.

There is one way for Mr Bush to rebuild trust. The US could offer what it has so far consistently refused: a bargain that would trade security guarantees and a progressive normalisation of relations for a cast-iron Iranian commitment to eschew nuclear weapons.

Such a course would at once expose the clerics in Tehran and begin to restore America’s authority as guardian of the international order. If there is no diplomatic answer to Iran’s pursuit of the bomb there is even less likely to be a military one.