It would take enormous courage to predict what the new decade holds for nations and their foreign policies. Pundits would be well-advised to remain calm and not seek refuge in giddy formulations such as “escalation" and its antonyms that in the past few days have been rendered dangerously irrelevant.
The relationship between nations is not event management, much less a public relations exercise. It is the sum and substance of histories, shared and sparred over. The days of “winner takes it all" may be limited, as historical perches shake and new ones struggle to emerge. Future battles will most likely be fought over trade, not territory and self-respect.
The absence of peace is not war—it is negotiation. And sound foreign policy will have to be based on negotiated trust. This is because a younger world is more ambitious and better connected, and guns are not its first choice.
The assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and its aftermath capture this transition. The shock apart, the roller coaster reactions from national capitals are instructive. They show that the person who speaks the loudest—in this case US President Donald Trump—or the country with the fiercest firepower may not always be right. While the world was told that Soleimani was killed as he was preparing to attack US interests in West Asia, subsequent facts show this claim was incorrect.
We live in times when information travels at speeds previously unknown, making it virtually impossible for any organization to capture data sets and respond with accuracy. Warfare, the last piece of diplomacy, is all about accuracy. Diplomacy, or anti-war, is geared to acquiescence and accommodation. Rarely has the planet been so militarized, yet we are not on the brink of World War III. In fact, we are nowhere near where we were about a century ago, when World War I had just ended.
Iran retaliated, something that Trump was probably not expecting. In fact, it may be the first time in recent memory that a country has retaliated against US aggression in such a manner. Soleimani was a hero in the region, a man credited with making both Syria and the ISIS buckle, and Washington saw him as a thorn in its math with Israel and Saudi Arabia. “According to Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister, Soleimani was carrying a response to a Saudi initiative on reducing tension between Riyadh and Tehran, exposing Trump’s narrative as a lie," said Rania Khalek, journalist and producer of the widely watched Soapbox programme on the In The NOW channel. “What’s striking is that more punishing sanctions will be praised as de-escalation because it’s not hot-war. But sanctions are war," she said.
It is important to note that western Anglo-Saxon media failed once again to pick up local signals, preferring instead to be briefed by largely clueless officials in Washington. As Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft tweeted: “Iran said it will retaliate, it did. It said it will not use proxies. It didn’t. It said it’ll target military assets. It did. Message is clear: They will do what they say. Now they say they’ll target all US bases in the region if Trump escalates further. Take them at their word."
In his address to the world on Wednesday evening, Trump said he would impose sanctions on Iran and urged other countries to back him. He also held out a rare olive branch to the United Nations. The climb down is noted, but here’s the problem. You can’t cherry-pick in diplomacy or expect self-respecting nations to help after you have killed their allies. Saving American lives is as important as saving all lives, and the only way forward is a reconstruction of multilateralism with new cards in hand.
European leaders, including those of France and Germany, are meeting later this week in Europe. Foreign policy watchers will tell you that discussing peace when there’s no war (as Trump claims) is bad news. It seems unclear what, if anything, they can do to push back a belligerent Trump whose biggest problem with Iran is its geography and leadership over the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 60% of global oil trade transits.
More than ever, the European Union has an opportunity to pick up the pieces and move ahead. Being former colonizers, they have the pulse of countries and understand the strings of multilateralism. The new decade will need a lot of building and healing, hand-holding and confidence-building. Much has happened between the 1979 Iranian Revolution and 2020. Trust is low, and global institutions need an overhaul, beginning with the UN, which has to seriously look at expanding its Security Council to reflect today’s world.
Russia and China have commented on Soleimani’s assassination, but they have not spoken. Such is the nature of their diplomacy. Some countries use speech to express themselves; others teach us something by remaining silent. Whose side India would take in case of an escalation of the conflict is a question that has already been asked. Foreign minister S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India will be on India’s side. New Delhi needs Washington as much as it needs Tehran, and vice versa.
Staying away from the arc lights is the best thing Indian diplomacy has done.
Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author