WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo (second from left) shake hands with Conference Chairman Gita Wirjawan as they declare the ceremonial closing of the ninth World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on 7 December. Photo: Edgar Su/Reuters
WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo (second from left) shake hands with Conference Chairman Gita Wirjawan as they declare the ceremonial closing of the ninth World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on 7 December. Photo: Edgar Su/Reuters

The year of unexpected agreements

2013 ended with a slew of unexpected agreements that offer a glimmer of hope for the global strategic arena

This year began with the shadow of conflict darkening international horizons and diminishing prospects for multilateral arrangements on crucial issues, particularly climate and trade. It surprisingly ended with a slew of unexpected agreements, which offer a glimmer of hope for the global strategic arena in 2014. Even the ongoing unfortunate US-India diplomatic fracas over the nannygate scandal is likely to be resolved, although a bitter aftertaste will linger.

In the international arena, the agreement to disarm Syria’s lethal chemical arsenal was as unforeseen as it was rapid. This unprecedented cooperation between Washington and Moscow not only helped the nascent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it also dissipated the war clouds over Syria. If conflict had broken out it would have engulfed other regional actors, including Israel and Iran, as well as the US and Russia. The Syrian chemical weapons agreement might eventually pave the way for international efforts to resolve the ongoing civil war.

Similarly, the agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany—though neither a historic breakthrough nor a historic mistake—was a significant step forward. As with Syria, this agreement too diverted the near-certain march to use force and might eventually lead to a long overdue rapprochement between Iran and the US.

Finally, the Bali agreement on trade was the first successful accord in the history of the World Trade Organization (WTO). According to one estimate, this deal will add $1 trillion to the global economy and will benefit countries like India. Indeed, the Bali agreement is evidence of India’s growing desire to work with others and to reach a compromise rather than wreck negotiations (as it did in the Doha round in 2008). New Delhi’s acceptance of the so-called peace clause, where a permanent solution to the issues of food subsidies would be found in four years, was an important aspect for this successful outcome.

Clearly, these agreements were the result of various factors. In the case of Syria and Iran, the war-weary Obama administration, desperately trying to disengage from Afghanistan, was reluctant to get stuck in other conflicts in the greater Middle East and grabbed the diplomatic option. The same consideration also prompted the Syrian leadership and the newly elected president of a sanctions-burdened Iran to make deals in earnest. Equally significantly, the US leadership, in the form of John Kerry, played a crucial role in pushing through both deals.

Similarly, in the WTO case, the role of the newly elected director-general, Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo, was vital in hammering out a deal and ensuring consensus. In addition, India, which was increasingly isolated, chose to compromise rather than become the fall guy again.

However, all three agreements remain tenuous and are only the first step in what promises to be a long and arduous road. The inability to build on them will lead to their unravelling and, in the case of Syria and Iran, military intervention.

Another hurdle, notably in the success of the Iran and WTO deals, is domestic politics. Strong opposition in both Washington and Tehran could still scupper the Iran deal and will have to be managed. Similarly, the WTO deal can become the target of contested elections in many key countries next year, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

Nonetheless, these agreements provide for a degree of optimism in 2014. However, developments in Asia-Pacific, notably China’s muscle-flexing to challenge the status quo and North Korea’s sabre-rattling, do not auger well. Unless diplomacy gains traction in resolving these conflicts and tensions, there is, sadly, little prospect for a peaceful new year.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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