Has Western Foreign Policy Failed?

Is it time the developing countries took over?


Now, at the pivotal points of the crisis in Syria, it is becoming more evident that we are on the cusp of a new world order. As President Assad systematically destroys his own civilians, the US pledges a near insignificant military response and Britain forgoes its ally, a divided European Union is left at a stalemate and NATO is nowhere to be found. Marking a stark contrast to the lack of US leadership in the crisis, Putin stepped into the void, initiating the negotiations to handover chemical weapons, which Assad wasn’t willing to admit existed, to international control. With the prolonged wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the war-weary American public opinion has created little appetite for intervention in Syria and foreign policy seems to reflect a consciousness of America’s shifting role in the global order. Putin’s authority has allowed Obama to quietly step outside of the sphere of intervention and has diminished his significance on the global stage.


Arguably, the 20th Century was in many ways, the American century. The post-World War system was defined by growing American hegemony. Western dominance in the international arena created the norms that have governed intervention and collective security, fostering an international society that values the notions of freedom, self-determination and humanitarian aid.


Yet the events of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show a progressive weakening by Western foreign policy of the very international structure it built. Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya showed a complete disregard for the UN Charter and international law. After a catastrophic death toll and the largest displacement of people since Palestine in 1948, Iraq eight years on remains a failed state, much like many other Western foreign policy projects. At the time, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister cautioned Bush that he would be ‘solving one problem and creating five more’, highlighting the fact that, more often than not, Western intervention mounts new conflict flashpoints on existing tribal or territorial tensions. Thousands of deaths and billons of dollars later, we are left to wonder whether things are for better or worse.


Western-led actions in Libya severely discredited notions such as ‘responsibility to protect’ and the brand of foreign policy that it enshrines. NATO acted far outside its realm of authority as outlined in the UN mandate, causing new emerging economic powers such as India, Brazil and China, who abstained from the resolution, to accuse NATO of a hidden agenda. The norms of Western dominated international system are increasingly being called into question with each successive foreign policy failure.


As Iraqi and Libyan societies veer dangerously close to civil war, the current inaction of Western leadership in Syria begs the question: is the US leading from behind or simply fading into the periphery? Syria marks a turning point towards what the New York Times describe as an anchorless world. Are India and China fit to fill the void?


In a speech delivered at Tsinghua University, the UN Secretary General said “as China’s influence increases, her share of responsibility in world security should also increase”. China already holds the largest number of peacekeeping forces in the P5 of the Security Council. The rising superpower is also enjoying a new role in development and supplying of aid. However, a veto on the Security Council resolution in Syria makes it clear that China has no interest in being responsible for the toppling of Arab dictators or aiding revolutions in faraway nations. Li Weijian, a specialist in China’s relationship with the Middle East, stresses that military intervention is not within China’s foreign policy aims. China appears fully aware of Western misgivings in foreign policy and instead seeks to pursue a ‘peaceful rise’. A promising sign of the US’ accommodation of China as a new global force can be seen through their joint military exercises in the Pacific rim area. However, realist assumptions among US policy makers, as China’s naval capabilities begin to counterbalance the US’ presence in the Pacific, highlight potential for confrontation.


India, which is quickly becoming one of the world’s largest weapons importers and a fully-fledged nuclear power, also shows potential as an emerging non-Western force in the international system. Economically, China and India are expanding their presence, securing contracts that exploit the mineral resources of Afghanistan and Iraq and thus establishing greater political leverage over the Middle East. While the role of China and India in the international community remains uncertain, it is clear that theirs will be a very different brand of foreign policy, unlike the unipolar hegemony of the United States of recent decades. As the US, still suffering from its Libyan ‘hangover’ and the still-vivid failures of intervention, it seems largely reluctant to contest their new potential for international leadership.