The West, Russia & Syria: Foreign policy is rarely a zero-sum game

Aaron Ellis 6.12am

It is perfectly possible for one country to argue with another over a controversial issue at the same time as co-operating with them on several others - as long as they both get their priorities right and are diplomatic in explaining their differences publicly.

Unfortunately, both Britain and the United States have failed to do this with regard to Russia: they have given more attention to Syria, where they disagree with the latter, than to the many more important issues on which they share common interests. The way British and American officials have explained their differences with their Russian counterparts has also been appallingly undiplomatic and, unsurprisingly, counterproductive.

If London and Washington want to withdraw from Afghanistan, negotiate an end to the Iran crisis, reduce nuclear weapons, and expand NATO, they must give less ‘airtime’ to Syria when dealing with Moscow. If they want to stop the violence there, they must be more respectful of Russia’s views, no matter how heartless they believe them to be. Otherwise, the Kremlin will take a zero-sum approach to the issues listed above, making the world a considerably more dangerous place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Anglo-American relations with Russia knows how difficult it can be to get them on your side, no matter how obvious it is that your approach to an issue will benefit them as much as it would benefit yourself. Russian foreign policy is characterised by interplaying contradictions. Its practitioners can be refreshingly honest one minute, deceptive the next; they can play the aggrieved party in a dispute when they are actually the aggressor; and can alternate between undermining the international order and being one of its key pillars

Yet there are best practice principles that can be teased out of our difficult history with the Russians.

One, respect their interests and treat them the way a great power ought to be treated, even if it is obvious they’re not one. Two, be honest about your own interests and don’t try to trick them, though they may be trying to trick you. Three, don’t be a hypocrite, no matter how hypocritical you think they are behaving. Essentially, keep in mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum: trust, but verify.

If this is “best practice”, both the United Kingdom and the United States have badly mishandled the Russians during the Syria crisis. They have not tried to safeguard their interests in the country should Bashar al-Assad fall, nor have they taken seriously their view of the crisis, as Giles Marshall argued they should in these pages last month. Rather than be diplomatic about their differences, some Western officials have publicly attacked Russia, as the US Ambassador to the UN did in February.

Some of the British and Americans’ actions have just been tin-eared: for example, leaking that David Cameron thought about using Special Forces to stop a Russian ship from allegedly taking weapons to Syria.

For months now, the conflict has preoccupied Anglo-American diplomacy, yet there are many other issues that are much more important to us than Syria and which require Russian support – or at least acquiescence. If we continue to bungle things with the Kremlin, it will become less cooperative on Iran and Afghanistan, even taking a zero-sum approach. One official said as much yesterday, warning that “if Russia doesn’t like the outcome” in Syria, it will start selling long-range surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Given that Russia is part of one of the two routes via which NATO supplies troops in Afghanistan, its support will be vital over the next two years as we withdraw, as the only other route out of the country is through Pakistan…

British and American officials are understandably exasperated with Russia’s Syria policy, for it is cold, self-interested, and hypocritical. Vladimir Putin attacked humanitarian interventionism a few months ago, yet he justified the war with Georgia on the same as grounds as those calling for military action in Syria. Unfortunately, the terrible things happening there simply aren’t important enough to us to risk an open breach with the Kremlin and losing its cooperation on much more vital issues.

Much of what Otto von Bismarck said over a hundred years ago holds true today, not least his belief that the secret of foreign policy is to make a good treaty with Russia…

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall