Should regional players combine to give the United States a much-needed reprieve from global disorder?
We live in an era of global governance. Through a complex network of international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Court of Justice and the World Trade Organization, we have succeeded in creating a pattern of governance — without government — at the global level.
Much of this global order was created under the leadership, the financial assistance and the persuasive powers of the United States.
It all began with the vision of President Woodrow Wilson to create a League of Nations. For six decades, since the end of World War II, the United States has been the primary mover behind the emerging global order and its main underwriter.
But for a while now, experts of international relations have been wringing their hands wondering what would happen to this Wilsonian world once the global leadership role of the United States was in decline. If the United States turned its back to the global order and refused to sustain it, or lost the capacity to do so, would that order collapse?
A possible answer has come from tiny Qatar. Qatar is a tiny, oil-rich emirate in the Gulf and quite comparable to the U.S. state of Delaware. Qatar has a population of about 950,000, while Delaware has about 850,000. Qatar’s GDP is $67 billion and Delaware — which in 2007 had the highest per capita income in the United States (of $59,000) — has a gross state product of about $63 billion.
In May 2008, the “Delaware of the Middle East” stepped up to the plate and pulled off a coup in diplomacy and peacemaking. Qatar resolved a conflict between feuding Lebanese factions that was threatening to break out into another civil war — with the dangerous possibility of embroiling Iran, Israel and the United States, as well.
Lebanon had been politically unstable since Israel’s devastating invasion in 2006. Its U.S.-backed government had become dysfunctional, the position of the president remained vacant and attempts by the pro-U.S. government to limit Hezbollah’s influence had backfired, resulting in the Iranian-backed group’s takeover of Beirut and its defeat of pro-U.S. militias. As violence escalated and the death toll reached 65, a civil war seemed inevitable.
Usually in such circumstances, the United States would have intervened by sending a prominent ambassador or the Secretary of State to conduct shuttle diplomacy — and resolve the conflict. But not this time.
Even if the United States had sought to address the crisis in Lebanon, it would have failed. As has been the case in recent years, the United States found itself aligned with one side — the government and Sunni Muslim leaders — and not on talking terms with the other side.
The “we talk only with those who agree with us” policy has disabled U.S. diplomacy. The world’s most powerful player is finding itself on the margins of peacemaking.
Tiny Qatar moved into the leadership void, hosted all the conflicting parties at a conference in its capital, Doha — and five days of intensive negotiations later, they all came out with a peace deal. Lebanon now has a president, a new electoral law, a functioning government and above all, Hezbollah has withdrawn its fighters — and peace prevails.
Qatar has shown that with the decline of the United States as a global pivot point and broker, regional players who enjoy the respect, trust and confidence of all parties can play the role of peacemakers in the absence of the superpower.
Perhaps it is trust — not power — that is the currency of peacemaking.
The deal reached in Doha has diminished U.S. influence in Lebanon and, by empowering Hezbollah, the deal has also hurt U.S. interests. Above all, Doha has sent the message that U.S. diplomacy is not always indispensable.
Across the region, we now see players stepping up to fill the diplomatic leadership gap. Turkey has taken the initiative to open indirect talks between Syria and Israel. For several months, the two countries have been talking to each other through Turkey despite what seems to be Washington’s passive-aggressive response.
Even the warring Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, have launched their own effort towards a rapprochement, shared by Egypt’s diplomats. Pakistan has begun a complex effort to make peace with Taliban and its allies. All of these initiatives are without U.S. blessings.
While all the cases above are small initiatives with limited scope, they are full of promise. No single nation, or a coalition of nations, has so far emerged that can play the role of the United States to sustain our global order.
But tiny Qatar, with one giant step, is showing the way. Perhaps other regional players like India, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the European Union can combine to give the United States a much-needed reprieve from global disorder and intrigue.
All in all, this is a development to be welcomed by all, including U.S. strategists. The world has benefited from the U.S.-sponsored global order. It is time for others to share its burden — even as they enjoy its fruits.