The US did not listen to Turkey on Syria

BAHA ERBAŞ
BOSTON
Published 22.11.2014 02:11
Updated 05.12.2014 00:31
The US did not listen to Turkey on Syria

"Charles Hill, the senior advisor to George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald Reagan and currently a professor at Yale University gave an interview to Daily Sabah about current issues and future of the international system."

What are your impressions about the international system? Today, when we look at the world map, we see a lot of crises, civil wars, wars, etc., what are the U.S.'s foreign policy priorities?


U.S. government policy is not engaging with the problems. I believe the American government does not quite understand them. Here, we should say what is the problem. The problem is, for the first time, very global and worldwide. When we think about grand strategic terms we have to think of the entirety of the world's situation. There are two main levels that we need to recognize. The first one is that for almost two centuries an international system did exist, one of the main reasons being the Ottoman Empire, as far as it related to the rest of this system. The second crucial point is that this international system has been deteriorating since the end of the Cold War. It's in decline. It has not been well managed within the last quarter of a century. Those main players of the international system have not fulfilled their responsibilities.

What has deteriorated the international system?


The Cold War did damage to the international system because both sides in the Cold War neglected it. The Soviet Union was an adversary to the system, even though it lost, but still both sides damaged the system. When the Cold War ended, in the beginning of the 1990s, we started to see things that we have never observed before. The state was the fundamental entity, but we observed "the failed states" in the 90s. For the first time we saw that states were disappearing. Authority disappeared in many parts of the world. "Ungoverned spaces" appeared in the system. After that intellectuals started to say that the international system is not important. They said that sovereignties, borders no longer matter, the state was outmoded, nongovernmental organizations were more important than governments. And another thing came into the picture in a very different way, the rise of religion. Religion began to be a factor from Sri Lanka to Israel and from Ireland to the Far East.

The EU damaged the system as well. Almost in a sleepwalking way, the EU started putting itself forward as an alternative to the existing international system. But within the last six to seven years we have been seeing that this does not work well, they do not really quite know what "Europe" is. Neither did the American governments nor the other players in the 90s really see what was going on, and what might come after this. People in Washington thought that since the Cold War was over, the system would take care of itself.

Damage was done to the U.N. in the 90s. The U.N. was not involved effectively in Kosovo or Bosnia. During the Kosovo and Bosnian crises, I was at the U.N. as an ambassador. Every single day my telephone's voicemail box had been filling up from Turks all over the world denouncing the U.N. because of its policy in Bosnia and Kosovo. They were complaining that the U.N. somehow was not sufficiently supporting the Muslim side in the Balkans. There were screams of anger.

I can see that since the 90s there have been national identity crises in many parts of the world, especially in Russia and the former Soviet Republics. China has a great national identity crisis. Still, Beijing has tried to create a story line, narratives to tell the Chinese people that they can be capitalist and communist. It doesn't work. China, in fact, remains an empire. It was recently reported there were 30 killed in Urumqi, which is a Muslim city in China.

In Russia, [President Vladimir] Putin has found an action plan as he tries to combine the historical mindset of the Russian people with modern politics, from tsars to commissars.

Another problem today is that regimes have substituted a dangerous nationalistic identity. Look at the Middle East. A decade later, what will be the national identity of the Arab world? Today in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq there are Arabs against Arabs.

Why do you think that the U.S. government does not understand international problems?


First, I think it is an educational problem. If you happened to be here at Yale as a student 40 years ago, you would have taken classes such as International History, the History of Diplomacy and Politics of the Great Powers. They were all abolished throughout the country in the 70s. A diplomat of the 1970s definitely knew much more than a diplomat of the 2010s. Internationally, there has been a serious shift in the way of studying diplomacy, politics, war and the state.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of American diplomacy?

American diplomats are totally unaware that they are dealing with a declining, diminishing power and they are oblivious of the fact that the balance of the system has been declining. They believe that it runs by itself. This is not working. American diplomacy operates as if changes really have not happened in the international system. But actually there have been a lot of changes. They are not dealing with the world with the right mentality. When they are negotiating an issue, American diplomats do not understand the other party's views, reserves, strengths and weaknesses. Thus, there are no improvements – they do not solve the problems.

Look at the Iranian case. When you read all the records, you will see that Iranians use diplomacy as a game to delay whatever they are afraid of.

Diplomacy is the main pillar of the international system. If the system is deteriorating, major players are more inclined to use diplomacy as their own mechanism rather than to use it seriously to solve the international problems. Another centerpiece of the system is the professional military. If you want to be a legitimate, strong player in the international system you have to have a well-organized diplomatic service and strong enough military might. The professional military is becoming more and more important.

The American National Intelligence Council recently revealed a report that says Chinese GDP will surpass the U.S.'s GDP in 2036. Do you think this is going to create serious changes in the world order?


Chinese intellectuals believe that the old international order is coming to an end. They ask themselves what kind of system will replace it. Now, Russia sees itself the same way. When a great power thinks that the international system is coming to an end, that power begins to act recklessly to satisfy itself as much as possible in order to be in the best position when the system collapses. It's a kind of grab what you can. That's what Russia is doing right now in the Caucasus, the Black Sea and Eastern Europe. China tries to grasp islands in the East and South China Seas. I, personally, do not believe that China will overtake the U.S.

The thing that is rarely pointed out is that China does not have a real economy. It's a kind of partial economy that has leveraged into enormous wealth and power. No open trade, no open expression, one-party dominated society. The Chinese know very well that they cannot continue this way. They have to change the general structure of the economy. What they have done to bring the economy to this point is not something that can be done in the future. How will it change? It is a very severe problem, which will create a massive disruption in society.

Do you believe that the international system is heading toward an end?

It is not impossible. The key point is whether the major powers really think that it is going to end. This is very important. As I said before, China and Russia think that it is coming to an end. That's why they are trying to make their interests paramount. The Westphalia order of 1648 could come to an end. According to Westphalia, all of the actors of the system have to have a certain kind of equality, which has been deteriorating among the great powers today. A kind of rough hierarchy is rising. For instance, the Chinese say to the Vietnamese or to Filipinos, that we are the great power, you are not. So you have to do what we want you to do.

I am not predicting it. You described the historical process of international order wonderfully. As you said, one great power comes to an end and another one rises to replace it. But what is different from all the previous balances and orders is the system's pillars are starkly different from all the past systems. The system is on the one hand extremely interlocked and on the other hand the actors can be whatever they want to be. The system is procedural. States are not equal but they are equal in the U.N. General Assembly. But China likes the idea of hierarchy. India says to Pakistan, I am a great power. China says the same thing to the Philippines and Russia to Georgia. China does not approve of any elements of the international system such as open trade and expression. China does not think that it is in its own interests to support the system.

How do you see the future of the Middle East?

When I look at the Middle East, I definitely see a series of rivalries in the future especially between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis see this very harshly. The three big powers are immensely different. The question is what each of these three decides the struggle will be about. To me, Iran is the first one among the three that understood this coming era 20 years ago. Iran is a unique structure, there are only a few countries around the world structured the way Iran has been. A kind of revolutionary society established in order to be adversarial to the international system. Iran is inside the system and an enemy of the system. This is the main contradictory point. If you look at The New York Times headlines on Wednesday the Iranians said something very positive, but the other day they turned out to be extremely hawkish and negative. There is nothing in the record, nothing in the performance of the Iranians' willingness to cooperate. The diplomats of Iran are not fully plugged into the international power structure.

Turkey has unique problems. Turkey has been admired for decades. People have said in the Middle East that the entire region should be just like Turkey. The Saudis and the Iranians want to see the region as primarily a kind of Sunni-Shiite conflict. They both have seen the Syrian crisis as a cockpit. What is happening in Syria will immensely affect their rivalries in the entire region. [Bashar] Assad is winning – it's a kind of reaffirmation of Iran's upper hand in the region. What will Saudi Arabia do about this? So far, they do not know what to do in this situation. We do not know yet. Sunni radicalism is so dangerous. Turkey has to solve its national identity crisis. In this struggle the Saudis do not have any strength except money. The Iranians know that once they get nuclear weapons, that is all they need to dominate the region. Turkey seems more uncertain of what to do because of its internal politics, mostly its Kurdish issue. Turkey's military is immensely impressive, certainly the keystone of NATO. Iran and Turkey, the two biggest players around the Sunni-dominated Arab center, are not Arab. But one of them is Sunni and the other one is Shiite.

The biggest problem that the EU has is that they do not really know who they are. They have lost the sense of what their purpose is and what they are going to do. Since the 1950s they have been telling themselves that they were perfect. The EU that came out of the Cold War was going to be different – which they did not realize until the last economic crisis they have been going through. They did not see in the 90s that all other parts of the world were going to rise, the economies were going to get bigger and bigger, more actors would get more shares. They did not see this at all. They thought that there wouldn't be any war. Obviously it has not worked. The U.S. had subsidized the EU welfare state – it did not have to have large defense budgets. The U.S. itself will have a kind of national identity crisis in the future.

Now, the Obama administration is trying the same thing that the EU had done in the Cold War by cutting its defense budget, spending much more money on the welfare state. If that happens to be the case then the U.S. won't play the role in the world that it did during the Cold War. So, after a certain time, we won't have the military capacity to play a global role. The problem is that if the U.S. goes in that direction, no one will fill the gap, which will strengthen the regional powers and intensify regional crises all over the world. We have been the world's policeman. Now, the common appraisal is that we can't be the world's policeman anymore. This may create more damage to the security of the international system.

If the Obama administration would have supported Turkey's proposal about the Syrian civil war to assist anti-Assad forces, now we would have a very different situation. If U.S.-Iran relations get back to normal, it means the U.S. will recognize Iran as the major power in the region. The major question is how a Shiite state can dominate a region that is mostly Sunni. This is Iran's fundamental challenge. Sunnis are in charge societally and culturally. A Shiite state could not dominate a Sunni region. Khomeini deliberately formed a very different Shiite theology. He created an untraditional Shiite doctrine. In Iraq's case, the ayatollahs are quiet, in Iran they are in charge. Sunnis consider Shiites as heretics. But Turkey wisely says that Turkey is Turkey, neither Sunni nor Shiite.

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