OWL’S HEAD, Maine — The news out of Moscow that Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergay Lavrov are hoping to convene an international conference to seek a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war could signal the most significant American diplomatic accomplishment of recent years.
But the fact that The New York Times buried the breakthrough on page 12 shows just how high the hurdles are before any conference gets off the ground, much less finds a solution. Significant outside pressure will be required to produce an arrangement that would involve the attendance of both the government of President Assad as well as a broad coalition of rebels, and an agreement on who would be in a transitional government.
But at a moment when even Russia fears out-of-control post-Assad chaos could create dangerous instability throughout the region, the announcement represents the first positive step after two years of unrelenting violence, 75,000 dead and over 2,000,000 refugees.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born scholar, with in-depth knowledge and experience of the Muslim world, has recently published a book, "The Dispensable Nation," with an underlying current of nostalgia for the Cold War era of Henry Kissinger and the bipolar world that we ultimately dominated.
Nasr's title refers to Madeleine Albright's famous remark in 1998: "It is the threat of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us." Ironically, Albright's remarks were instigated by a discussion of the effectiveness of our sanctions policy against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Nasr's title is an obvious rebuke to the policies of both George Bush and Barack Obama over the past dozen years. And while one can question whether the US was quite the indispensable nation Albright described, in 1998 the other super power had disintegrated a few years earlier and the new Russia was still groping its way out of the rubble; China was in the middle of its three-decade double-digit growth but still in the shadow of Tiananmen. Eastern Europe was finding its way piece-by-piece into NATO, and the Arab World of kings and dictatorships-for-life Iheld sway.
Sure, the Ayatollah had replaced Mao's China as the font of insults about America's manhood and Saddam Hussein was still smoldering in Baghdad, though more antagonistic even then towards Iran than the US. Pride goeth before a fall, Madeleine dear, but still, indispensable was not a bad description of 1998 America.
But that was then. One of the three major elements of Nasr's book is his concern that as we "pivot" to East Asia, we don't leave the West Asian flank so exposed that China extends its influence through Central Asia to replace us as the play-caller in the Arab World.
Indeed, it is likely that as we “frack” our way to energy-independence, and Middle Eastern oil and its owners lose their importance, the area will no longer hold the interest it has had for us since World War II. And into our fading shadow might well creep oil-dependent China. But -- as Rand Paul-Inspired isolationist fantasies compete with our over-extended policeman-of-the-world role -- one can't help thinking, let the Chinese have it.
For Nasr, though, even a limited pullback from the world's most difficult area is problematic: "It is not likely that America can easily and quickly wash its hands of the Middle East. We cannot escape the blowback from trouble in this region."
Any attempt to do so, he says, would backfire: "After China further strengthens its position in the Middle East, we will find ourselves on the back foot, having to play catch-up with money we don't have or will have to borrow from China." He believes "it is not too late. It is still possible to look ahead and deal with the problems in the region."
It's certainly true; we must look ahead and deal not just with today's problems but plan for a whole number of contingencies. Nasr thinks, and rightly so, that economic development is the key to turning the broken region away from extremism: "The international community would have to make a sizable investment -- a Marshall Plan in scale -- to bring about change of that magnitude. And that requires American leadership." But much more than just leadership.
Unless we rely on China's money, which would seem to encourage the scenario Nasr wants to avoid, the US -- helped by an economically struggling Europe? -- is hardly going to be able to underwrite the kind of economic renaissance that Nasr sees, rightly, as needed medicine. In the late 1940s, after World War II, when we initiated the Marshall Plan for Europe, the US, with the rest of the industrialized world in ruins, had 50 percent of the world's GNP; today, it has 19 percent.
A more realistic solution may be, through in-depth diplomatic dialogue, to bring China into a sharing role, rather than allow them, through default, to assume our pre-eminent position in the Middle East. After all, a destabilized Middle East is increasingly a greater threat to China's economic interests than to our own.
If new Secretary of State Kerry wants to really make his mark, turning our Asian pivot into a diplomatic win-win, rather than a military challenge, is the way to go. His just-announced deal with Russia to seek a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war is an encouraging indication of his diplomatic skills. What Nasr's book really highlights is the necessity of upgrading our diplomatic game at a time when our military strength can no longer, single-handedly, carry the day.
The paradox underlying his book, though, is that while we are in fact a long way from being dispensable, we are hardly the indispensable nation that Albright described. But if we continue to behave as if we were, we'll damage ourselves and other nations as well.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.