Terms of Engagement

Whoa There, Rising Powers!

Brazil and Turkey's diplomatic forays may be annoying, but they also signal a huge shift in the way the world works. Is Obama paying attention?


When I first read the news about the nuclear deal that Brazil and Turkey reached last week with Iran, I flinched. My reflex reaction was: Third-World troublemakers rally to the side of evil-doer in the face of Western pressure. That was, of course, the wrong reflex. This was not China giving succor to Zimbabwe, or Venezuela recognizing Abkhazia. Brazil and Turkey are among the most solidly founded democracies and market economies in the developing world. Both are important U.S. allies, and mature actors in international fora. Their joint bid to break the impasse on Iran represents something more encouraging, more worrisome, and much more significant than any of Hugo Chávez’s antics.

The Obama administration appears to have had the same reaction I did: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly called her Turkish counterpart to warn him off the effort, and publicly predicted it would fail. The implicit message sounded like: Don’t mess in our sandbox. That fell on deaf ears. President Luiz Inacío Lula da Silva of Brazil went ahead with his long-planned trip to Iran, and he was joined there by Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan of Turkey. And they hammered out a deal that in important ways resembled the one the West had been seeking: Tehran would yield up 1,200 kilograms of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to be reprocessed elsewhere and then returned for peaceful uses.

The Obama administration repudiated the deal, and the big powers within the U.N. Security Council went ahead and agreed on a new draft sanctions resolution. Some critics have alleged that the U.S. administration passed up a golden opportunity for peace in a fit of pique at diplomatic interlopers, or that Iran had made painful concessions to fellow emerging nations that it would not make to the West. I think the administration was right on the merits. In the highly unlikely event that the deal goes through, Iran will still have lots more low-enriched uranium left to play with; and Tehran has openly stated that it will persist in enriching available stocks. Accepting such a deal would have constituted a recognition that Iran cannot be prevented from developing a nuclear weapons capability. That might be where all this ends up, but it’s way too early to acquiesce to such an outcome.

We’re probably back to square one, or square whatever, on Iran; but something important has shifted in the world order, and we will have to get over our flinch reflex. Brazil and Turkey are middle-sized powers — eighth and 17th in the world, respectively, in GDP — that live at peace with their neighbors and believe they have a calling to play a role on the global stage. In recent years, both have opened embassies around the world. Both have ambitious leaders whose sails are filled with the wind of nationalist sentiment. In an article last week for Foreign Policy, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explained that one of the guiding principles of his country’s foreign policy was "rhythmic diplomacy," which sounds like jazzercise but in fact, as he put it, "implies active involvement in all international organizations and on all issues of global and international importance."

What are we to make of the fact that countries the United States wishes would play a larger role in the world are now doing so, but in a way that frustrates American goals? First of all, it tells us that the diplomacy surrounding global issues will be a lot more complicated than it was even quite recently. Sometimes the mobilization of new actors will help solidify a consensus around tough issues, as the G-20 did last year in confronting the global financial crisis. But since the global consensus tends to fall apart as you move beyond the economy, the impatience of middle-sized powers to play a role equal to their status, or what they view as their status, will further muddle already messy areas of statecraft. The Brazils and Turkeys of the world are not likely to form a coherent new bloc, but they will be far less inclined than they were in the past to stay within the lines chalked in by the referees of the West.

We overrate the salience of democracy to foreign policy. Partisans of a "concert of democracies" have assumed that maturing democracies in the developing world would seek to advance the same, supposedly universal, values prized by their elders in the West, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Foreign policy in Brazil and Turkey seem much less deeply shaped by their domestic political order than by the ambitions of their leaders and by their membership in the "non-aligned movement," which tends to view coercive measures of any kind imposed by the West as a violation of state sovereignty. What’s more, since neither country feels deeply threatened by Iran, neither is prepared to put aside cherished principles in order to restrain the regime in Tehran, or even to strengthen the nonproliferation system.

Nor has Obama’s proposed nuclear grand bargain inspired these states to reconsider their own policies. The U.S. administration is hoping to use the ongoing U.N. conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to gain widespread agreement to the so-called additional protocols, which mandate more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities. Brazil and Argentina are the only signatories with nuclear enrichment plants who have not accepted the additional protocols (and Argentina has said it will agree as soon as Brazil does). During a discussion at the conference last week, the Brazilian delegate reiterated that adopting the additional protocols should be wholly voluntary, as Iran has insisted; he added that in any case non-nuclear-weapons states should not have to accept such restraints until those who have weapons agree to fully disarm.

It’s tempting to dismiss much of this as mere histrionics, to be put aside when, for example, it comes times to vote on Security Council resolutions. There’s no question that Brazil’s interests, or Turkey’s, overlap in many places with those of the U.S. and Europe; Turkey seeks nothing more ardently than full EU membership, for instance. But in many other places, interests diverge, and the middle powers are inclined to view the current world order as an instrument to advance Western designs, not theirs. Why should they have to accept a system that permits India, Israel, and Pakistan — non-signatories of the NPT who happen to be American allies — to have nuclear weapons while they have bound themselves not to? Why, for that matter, should they have to accept an American running the World Bank, and a Frenchman running the IMF?

The international system, which looked impregnable a decade ago, now seems increasingly ineffective and weak. "Both countries look at the global order and see the failings of the West," says Matias Spektor, a Brazil expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The West has been expanding the reach of its norms and its rules. But at the same time you’ve got Iraq, the financial crisis,  North Korea going nuclear, Iran, the EU imploding — all while these emerging states have proved to be relatively steady." The perceived failure and injustice of the existing system didn’t matter so much when those on the outside felt powerless. Now they feel, if anything, overly empowered, and are prepared for rhythmic diplomacy.

All this raises a fundamental question about President Obama’s engagement policy. For all his efforts to improve America’s international standing and to treat states, cultures, religions, international institutions, and everything else with due regard, Obama has found the world only slightly more tractable than George W. Bush did. Bush thought Turkey was a good friend until the Turks refused to let American troops pass through on the way to Iraq. Brazil was just the kind of country Obama had in mind when he argued that the U.S. could make real progress on nonproliferation by showing commitment on disarmament — the bargain at the heart of the NPT. Obama has done the best he could, or feels he can, given the restraints imposed by a hawkish Congress and a skeptical public. And Brazil hasn’t budged an inch.

Engagement, it turns out, is a weaker currency than Obama had thought. His diplomatic investments have been too modest to win compliance even from the major democratic states in the developing world that would seem to have the most in common with the United States. And the reason is that price of compliance has gone way up as those nations have grown in self-confidence. U.S. presidents will have to learn to expect less.

Or perhaps they’ll need to spend more. For Obama, the really important question is whether he should reconcile himself to an unavoidable clash of interests with rising powers, or try to win them over by offering a deeper and more substantive kind of engagement — for example, by pushing for a greater democratization of the institutions from which those states now feel excluded. It may be that the only chance to get Brazil to act more like a global citizen is to treat it like one.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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