The current debate over Western intervention in Syria is a clear case of how foreign policy decisions taken years ago by different governments and under extremely different circumstances can exercise significant influence over present decision-making. Both the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 have loomed large over discussions about Syria in the UK and the United States as a direct consequence of two developments. First, new information technology has increased collective memory and, with it, the awareness of past miscalculations. Second, the cost of poor diplomacy has risen dramatically as a result of the world’s growing multipolarity. Indeed, in an international system with numerous power centers, action will only be possible if states conduct diplomacy in a coherent, open, and transparent manner. Coming to grips with this reality should allow for a more effective foreign policy and should enable leaders to bequeath greater freedom to their successors.
A brief look at developments since the August 21 chemical weapons attack against an opposition-held area of Damascus shows how important past foreign policy decisions have been in determining the response of the international community. The government of the United Kingdom, blaming the Assad regime for the attack, decided to recall the House of Commons early from its summer recess and request from it an authorization to use force. The over eight hour-long debate that ensued on August 30 included numerous references to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war, in which the UK played a prominent role. Ultimately, the British government failed in its attempt to generate consensus on the need for action against Syria. This was the first time since 1782 that a British Prime Minister was denied the support of Parliament on a matter of war.
The U.S. government is not fairing much better. There is a real possibility of Congress voting against action in Syria, or of limiting the mandate the President wants to extract from it. It now seems that there could be a diplomatic solution that includes Syria giving up its chemical arsenal. Be that as it may, the fact that the U.S. Congress was asked to express an opinion on the matter of intervention in the first place is as much a reflection of Obama’s desire to build a strong domestic coalition in favor of action, as it is a political requirement after the foreign policy blunders of the Bush years. The mere fact that two leaders like Barack Obama and David Cameron, who can authorize the use force without the need for approval from the Legislature, have been compelled to ask their respective parliaments for support speaks to the mistrust generated during the Iraq War between the British and American executives and their legislatures.
The 2011 intervention in Libya that resulted in the fall of the Gaddafi regime has also shaped the outcome of events surrounding Syria. Countries like Russia and China thought the NATO-led mission went far beyond the original mandate granted to it by the UN Security Council. Unsurprisingly, when Western powers tried to obtain the UNSC’s acquiescence to an intervention in Syria, Chinese and Russian leaders were unresponsive. As Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in late 2012, “[Russia] will not allow the Libyan experience to be reproduced in Syria. Unfortunately, our Western partners have departed from the Geneva accords and are seeking the departure of Bashar al-Assad.”
The phenomenon of past foreign policy decisions limiting the options of future leaders is quite probably not a new one, but a strong case could be made that it is growing in intensity. Two elements could be behind this change. The first is the emergence of new communication technology and its impact on collective (and international) memory. Events of 2003 seem fresh in collective memory, and if one needs reminding, with one click anyone can access, for example, the very compelling (and erroneous) case made against Iraq by Collin Powel at the UN Security Council. With extreme ease, both domestic and international stakeholders are reminded of the fallibility of Western intelligence, or, as some might deem it, of the unreliability of U.S. foreign policy.
The second driver of this change is perhaps more structural. In an increasingly multipolar world it is only natural that consensus is required for action. Middle powers will be more willing to oppose initiatives by previous hegemons and will have the diplomatic and sometimes even the military wherewithal to block specific actions. This not only puts a premium on consensus-building and effective democracy in the present, but also on transparency, foreign policy coherence (including from one Administration to the next), and trust-building amongst international partners over time. In this environment the cost of past foreign policy mistakes will quite simply be higher and more limiting of a country’s future ability to build effective coalitions.
In a recent article, Ian Bremmer spoke of the G-zero world and how Syria exemplified the inability of major powers to do as they please. However, Western inability to affect change on the ground in Syria might be more self-inflicted than at first apparent. If the United States and its allies had conducted their foreign policy differently in the past, particularly regarding Iraq and Libya, it might well have been the case that the international community would be more receptive to action in Syria today. What is certain is that policy short-sightedness will be much more limiting in the coming decades than in the past. If we do not want our countries to be deprived of the ability to act in future crises, we should make sure our foreign policy decisions today are well thought through, legitimate, and conscious of their long-term implications. This should make consensus-driven action the norm and efforts to build that consensus the cornerstone of twenty-first century diplomacy.