Negotiation has its place, but so does force
Negotiation has its place, but so does force
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 3 minutes

Negotiation has its place, but so does force

Australia must take part in devising guidelines for the use of force.

It takes a long time for some things to sink into the heads of some policymakers. But — with the continuing catastrophe in Iraq, the lesser but still painful one of Israel's confrontation with Hezbollah last year and, by contrast, the progress now being made after the return to the negotiating table in North Korea — the message does seem to be finally getting through that military force has profound limits as a policy instrument, that — in Churchill's immortal phrase — "jaw-jaw is better than war-war".

Life is a learning experience, even for neo-cons. There is a great deal to be said for good old-fashioned diplomacy, containment and deterrence — not least in trying to solve the interlocking Middle East problems of Israel-Palestine, Lebanon-Syria, Iran and Iraq.

In the case of Iraq, the penny seems at last to have dropped in the US, after as usual exhausting all less rational alternatives, that the only game in town really is the set of recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report — premised on the deeply suspicious notion that diplomacy is all about finding common ground with your opponents, not just your friends. Certainly, the only way forward in a desolate situation seems to be a major effort, working with Iran among others, to internationalise and regionalise the conflict-resolution process, and to use the broad-based pressure applied by an international contact group to create a new internal political settlement with a broader group of players than those now dominating the government.

Where the penny has not yet dropped is talking to Iran about Iran. While there is now a fairly complete understanding in Washington and Israel about the catastrophic impact of a preventive military strike on its nascent nuclear facilities, policymakers are still in denial on the other reality: that diplomatic confrontation and sanctions are not going to stop Tehran acquiring a full nuclear fuel-cycle capability, including the know-how to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

What is needed is a completely different approach that would seek — through a negotiated package of incentives and disincentives, with a very strong monitoring and enforcement mechanism — to hold Iran to the status of a breakout-capable state, not an actual nuclear weapons state. I am constantly told there is no way the US can be persuaded to modify its position, so there's no alternative but to press on with confrontation.

Similar considerations apply, although one runs the risk of even greater unpopularity in saying so, in relation to dealing with Hamas in the context of trying yet again to construct a viable and sustainable Arab-Israeli peace. I have never been more persuaded than I am now that an urgent effort to construct a workable two-state solution is crucially necessary for the security of Israel, the immediate region and to help defuse some of the wider tensions between the West and the Islamic world. But I have also been never more persuaded than I am now that this will be utterly unachievable without the re-creation of significant Palestinian unity and the end of the attempt to boycott and isolate Hamas into submission.

The wider point that needs to be made is that an approach to the Middle East that combines attempted democratisation with the isolation of all political Islamists has always been hopelessly unrealistic.

What I would always argue should be the preference of rational policymakers for jawing rather than warring does not mean that we should swing to the opposite extreme and reject military responses in situations where this is both legal, as a matter of international law, and legitimate, as a matter of morality and decency. There are two big problems with military force: not just using it when we shouldn't, but not using it when we should. And in this context we need to be focusing much more intently, in the Security Council and everywhere else, on formulating agreed guidelines for the use of force.

The point about introducing such agreed criteria is not that their application will produce push-button consensus, but that they will necessarily concentrate everyone's attention on not just one or two, but all the critical issues: (1) whether the situation is prima facie serious enough to justify even the contemplation of force, (2) whether the primary reason for the proposed attack is really the stated one and defensible as such, (3) whether military action really is the last resort, (4) whether the nature of the force proposed is proportional to the harm being stopped or averted, and (5) the balance of consequences: whether the proposed coercive military intervention will do more harm than good.

Getting agreement on such criteria of legitimacy remains for me one of the great pieces of unfinished international security business, and one on which those of us keen to live in a rule-based international order — and that should certainly include countries the size of Australia — should continue to campaign hard.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.