The lead-up to the recent U.S.-Russian agreement to locate and remove or eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability was a classic story of how international politics plays out among the strong powers in the global arena. UN agreements and treaties regarding weapons of mass destruction are all very well, but these norms cannot enforce themselves: only states can do that. And the willingness of states to do so depends very much on what linkage they see between their own overriding national and international interests and the transgression that has taken place.
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While many in the West doubted the strength and purpose of U.S. President Barack Obama’s threat to punish Assad's use of chemical weapons - and deter their future use - through limited, targeted military force, Obama's target audience obviously did get the message: Russia, Syria, and most likely Iran. It is this threat that pushed Russia to coordinate a deal.
The goal of threatening to use military force is not to use it, but to effect change on the party being threatened. If this can happen without force being used, this is the best possible outcome. So it is quite unwarranted to say that President Obama projected weakness and indecision by “backing down” from his punishment threat. In fact, the U.S. administration was the only actor that projected determination, and it got results – far better than anything that could have been achieved with a targeted and limited use of military force. Assad’s chemical arsenal was reportedly not even among the proposed targets for attack, for fear of possible dispersal of the dangerous chemicals as a result of the bombing itself. But without a firm threat, the deal would not have materialized.
While the U.S. and Russia were dangerously at odds over the use of military force in Syria, they were nevertheless both very much engaged in the unfolding crisis. The Europeans, by contrast, basically stepped aside. With Germany focused on national elections, the only calls for action came from France and Britain – but Cameron’s hands were quickly tied by parliament and France supported the United States taking action. Beyond that, the dominant message coming from Europe was one of sharp criticism of Obama: For threatening force without UN Security Council approval, and for not waiting for the UN inspectors’ report, although the question of who used chemical weapons was outside the inspectors’ mandate. One might have expected Europe to be more proactively concerned about this blatant violation of a strong international norm, and to at least have come up with an idea for breaking the impasse, rather than criticizing from the sidelines.
What does all of this mean for international efforts to stop Iran? The Syrian case has clearly demonstrated the essential role and importance of state-based leadership. Complex cases of WMD non-compliance will most likely not be resolved by “the UN," or even the Security Council. Rather, they will be decided by individual members of the Security Council – most importantly, by its strongest members, the United States and Russia.
The ability of these two global powers to work together no doubt strengthens their common goal to confront WMD noncompliance and threats. But the critical stage in the Syrian dynamic occurred before Russia came up with the deal, when the United States and Russia were at odds over the use of force. This is when the Obama administration’s moral and strategic leadership assumed center stage. Yes, the administration wavered, but Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on August 30th and President Obama’s on September 10th were an affirmation of the administration’s determination not to remain inactive when the norm against chemical weapons was being so blatantly violated.
Determined WMD proliferators like Syria and Iran are not likely to back down and reverse course without facing a credible threat of military force. This lesson has been driven home by the Syrian case. While many were focused on Obama’s faltering efforts to garner support for his position both domestically and in the international arena, Russia and Syria believed he would attack, and this pushed the Russians to propose a diplomatic way out, and the Syrians to accept it.
Obama might even have surprised himself with his own determination to act, and by the fact that his threats were taken seriously, ultimately producing a deal. There will almost certainly be additional obstacles along the road of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons, which could reignite tensions between the two global powers over the question of use of force. Still, the issue is now on the international agenda in a manner that can no longer be ignored by the international community.
Moreover, this experience has shown that taking a firm stand in international affairs, even at the risk of being unpopular, can work, and it is a true test of leadership. In an interview from September 15th, this salient insight found expression when Obama referred to the Iranian nuclear crisis: he explicitly stated that a credible threat of force coupled with a diplomatic effort can produce results. If the president remains focused on this message in the period leading up to the next round of negotiations with Iran, he will be better positioned to succeed than he has been in the past five years.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).