“How has Clausewitz shaped American strategic thought?” asked Jim Helis, chairman of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College, in a discussion with American military officers and strategists in 2011. “There are principles that apply to our business,” he concluded.
The 19th-century German general and strategist who wrote “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” historically had a deep influence in US policy-making circles. Yet, in recent years when it comes to Syria and other conflicts, an addiction to diplomacy has led to failure. The US has not achieved its goals, with disastrous consequences.
On December 5, the US was again frustrated at the United Nations Security Council as Russia and China vetoed a resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo. Russia’s refusal was a “made-up alibi” said Michele Sison, the US deputy envoy to the UN, “we will not let Russia string along the Security Council”. An empty threat. The French noted that Russia was pushing for its Syrian ally to take Aleppo “regardless of the human cost”. Correct.
The reality of US policy in the last years of the Obama administration is that it has elevated diplomacy to an unrealistic position such that diplomacy is conducted for diplomacy’s sake alone, untethered from other options.
It has become a series of carrots, without the proverbial stick. The administration sees that as garnering success in the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and smoothing relations with Cuba after 50 years.
But on Syria particularly, and on other issues such as pressuring Israel or dealing with Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, the US has been frustrated because its opponents see through the diplomatic-only approach. The US has entered a period of anti-strategy, in which it lays its cards on the table first and then seeks to play poker.
It should have been a foregone conclusion that attempts at a ceasefire in Syria would go nowhere.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has articulated genuine concern for the Syrian people. “The suffering that we have witnessed in Syria over the course of more than five years now is really beyond inhumane,” he said in Geneva on September 9.
He has met numerous times with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but his conclusion that “we have worked together to try to build a consensus on the broad steps and then to develop specific ideas”, is misguided.
The bifurcation of diplomacy from consequences means one group of actors play on two playing fields, war and diplomacy, and their opponents only confront them on the diplomatic field.
Knowing well that the Syrian regime and its allies had broken the other ceasefires and used them to their advantage, he refused to acknowledge that the whole nature of the endless negotiations was working in Russia’s favour.
Every month that the negotiations dragged on, the rebels became weaker and millions of refugees became more desperate. “The US and Russia have agreed on steps which we will take, providing there is a sustained period of reduced violence,” Kerry claimed. Yet, the Syrian regime does not reduce violence, and five years have proved that.
Two months after these statements a sustained offensive drove the rebels from much of Aleppo. The negotiations since 2013 have only served to cement Bashar al-Assad in power, not erode his legitimacy. If there had never been US-led diplomacy in the first place, the regime would probably still be where it is today.
For much of human history, war and diplomacy were part of the same enterprise. When the Persian King Darius sent his envoys to the Greek city-states in 491BC to demand they recognise his suzerainty, it was understood refusal would be met with force of arms.
Henry V of England attacked France in 1415 after supposedly receiving a mocking gift of tennis balls rather than recognition of his claims from the French king.
In modern times, diplomacy has been stylised and romanticised as somehow independent from its Clausewitzian relation to force of arms.
History forgets the bloodletting that underpinned the Congress of Vienna and made fame of Lord Castlereagh and Klemens von Metternich.
A decade after the World War I, the US Secretary of State Frank B Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand put forth a pact to end the use of war as a policy. The world shall “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force,” the pact predicted, which later was incorporated into the charter of the United Nations.
Within three years Japan had invaded Manchuria and by 1935 Benito Mussolini’s Italy was using mustard gas – prohibited by the Geneva Protocol in 1925 – to massacre Ethiopians.
There is a direct parallel with countries like the US that broadcast their intention to only use diplomacy. When Adolf Hitler set his sights on aggressive expansion in 1933, he did so with knowledge that the Oxford Union, the elite of British society, had voted in February 1933 that under “no circumstances” would they “fight for king and country”. If your adversaries know that a society fears confrontation and relies only on blandishments and diplomacy, the diplomacy is sure to fail.
The US has faced this problem over the past half-decade. Obama came to office with a mandate to draw down US involvement abroad. He reduced the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the US led military intervention in Libya in 2011 and built an anti-ISIL coalition of more than 30 countries in 2014. From the moment the US refused action on Syria in 2013 over chemical weapons, Assad and his allies in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah understood that the US would pursue a diplomacy-only track on Damascus.
John Kerry also warned in 2013 that Israel’s policies risked scuppering a two-state solution. Yet, at the Saban Forum on December 4, he claimed that he had talked to Benjamin Netanyahu 375 times, “more than 130 hours” and travelled to Israel 40 times. What was there to show for all that? Nothing. No progress on Palestinian statehood, no progress on reversing Israeli policies that the US disagrees with, such as construction of settlements.
In foreign policy, countries that know there will be no repercussions carry on with their policies. Whether it is China building bases in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s treatment of Muslim minorities, or Russian actions in Ukraine and the Baltic, the addiction to diplomacy in the West and elsewhere threatens to turn the world into a Hobbesian “state of nature”.
In that world, the bifurcation of diplomacy from consequences means one group of actors play on two playing fields, war and diplomacy, and their opponents only confront them on the diplomatic field.
Diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake doesn’t achieve anything in that conflict. Those who play by Clausewitz’s rules will achieve their goals. Those who say “only diplomacy” surrender to regimes that cause great human suffering, millions of refugees, extremism and long-term instability.
Seth J Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based commentator on Middle East politics and has lectured in American studies at Al-Quds University. He has just returned from fieldwork in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.