The U.S. Is Not an Indispensable Peacemaker

Representatives of Iran, China and Saudi Arabia in Beijing on March 10. China Daily, via Reuters
Representatives of Iran, China and Saudi Arabia in Beijing on March 10. China Daily, via Reuters

There was a time when all roads to peace went through Washington. From the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt brokered by President Jimmy Carter to the 1993 Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn to Senator George Mitchell’s Good Friday Agreement that ended the fighting in Northern Ireland in 1998, America was the indispensable nation for peacemaking. To Paul Nitze, a longtime diplomat and Washington insider, “making evident its qualifications as an honest broker” was central to America’s influence after the end of the Cold War.

But over the years, as America’s foreign policy became more militarized and as sustaining the so-called rules-based order increasingly meant that the United States put itself above all rules, America appears to have given up on the virtues of honest peacemaking.

We deliberately chose a different path. America increasingly prides itself on not being an impartial mediator. We abhor neutrality. We strive to take sides in order to be “on the right side of history” since we view statecraft as a cosmic battle between good and evil rather than the pragmatic management of conflict where peace inevitably comes at the expense of some justice.

This has perhaps been most evident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but is now increasingly defining America’s general posture. In 2000, when Madeleine Albright defended the Clinton administration’s refusal to veto a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning the excessive use of force against Palestinians, she cited the need for the United States to be seen as an “honest broker”. But since then, the United States has vetoed 12 Security Council resolutions expressing criticisms of Israel — so much for neutrality.

We started to follow a different playbook. Today, our leaders mediate to help “our” side in a conflict advance our position rather than to establish a lasting peace. We do it to demonstrate the value of allying with the United States. While this trend is more than two decades long, it has reached full maturity now with great-power competition with China becoming the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. This rivalry is, in the words of Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, “not a competition of countries. It is a competition of coalitions”. Following Dr. Kahl’s logic, we keep our coalition partners close by offering them — in addition to military might — our services as a “partial broker” to tilt the scales of diplomacy in their favor.

It’s what you do when you see the world through the prism of a Marvel movie: Peace is born not out of compromise but out of total victory.

But just as America has changed, so has the world. Elsewhere in the world, Marvel movie logic is seen for what it is: Fairy tales where the simplicity of good versus evil leaves no space for compromise or coexistence. Few have the luxury of pretending to live in such fantasy worlds.

So while America may have lost interest in peacemaking, the world has not. As the Ukraine crisis has shown, America has been immensely effective in mobilizing the West but hopelessly clueless in inspiring the global south. While the Western nations wanted the United States to rally them to defend Ukraine, the global south was looking for leadership to bring peace to Ukraine — of which the United States has offered little to none.

But America not only has moved beyond peacemaking. It is also increasingly dismissive of other powers’ efforts to mediate. Though the White House officially welcomed the Saudi-Iranian normalization deal, it could not conceal its irritation at China’s new-won role as a broker in the Middle East. And Beijing’s earlier offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia was quickly dismissed by Washington as a distraction, even though President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed it on the condition that Russian troops would withdraw from Ukrainian territory. As Mark Hannah of the Eurasia Group Foundation recently pointed out, there is an inherent hypocrisy “in touting Ukraine’s agency when it prosecutes war, but not when it pursues peace.”

Still, Xi Jinping of China seems undeterred. He traveled to Moscow this week and also plans to speak directly to Mr. Zelensky in what appears to be the preparation for an active mediation attempt to bring the war to an end.

Mr. Xi succeeded in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia together precisely because he was on neither’s side. With stubborn discipline, Beijing maintained a neutral position on the two countries’ squabbles and didn’t moralize their conflict or bother with whose side history would take. Nor did China bribe Iran and Saudi Arabia with security guarantees, arms deals or military bases, as all too often is our habit.

Whether Mr. Xi’s formula will work to end Russia’s war on Ukraine remains to be seen. But just as a more stable Middle East where the Saudis and Iranians aren’t at each other’s throats benefits the United States, so too will any effort to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table.

In a multipolar world, shared responsibility for security can be a virtue that reduces the burden on Americans without increasing threats to U.S. interests. It is not security that we would give up, but the illusion that we are — and have to be — in control of developments far away. For too long, Americans have been told that if we do not dominate, the world will descend into chaos. In reality, as the Chinese mediation has shown, other powers are likely to step up to shoulder the burden of security and peacemaking.

The greatest threat to our own security and reputation is if we stand in the way of a world where others have a stake in peace, if we become a nation that doesn’t just put diplomacy last but also dismisses those who seek to put diplomacy first.

In tomorrow’s world, we should not worry if some roads to peace go through Beijing, New Delhi or Brasília. So long as all roads to war do not go through Washington.

Trita Parsi is the author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy and the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute.

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