In the complex world of diplomacy, governments are almost constantly switching between the use of incentives and threats as they try to gain foreign cooperation. The United States, as an influential global power, has a stake in a broad range of interrelated issues and therefore must play this game extremely carefully. Unfortunately, as of late, the U.S. approach to many issues has come under criticism from the American media and public.
Syria has presented an especially difficult situation. When the Obama administration assured the Assad regime that use of chemical weapons in its ongoing conflict would result in harsh consequences, many assumed that the United States was threatening to intervene militarily. However, such action would almost entirely undermine the administration’s recent efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Entering a new conflict just as American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted to playing a support role would ensure more years of entanglement.
Therefore, when the Syrian government did launch a chemical attack, the administration chose to resolve the issue diplomatically. Arrangements were made for the entirety of Syria’s chemical weapon stores to be transported from the country and destroyed. While this move was likely more practical than a military response, which could not have ensured that chemical weapons would not fall into the wrong hands, many viewed it as taking a weak stance. Delayed deadlines and other problems in exporting the weapons for destruction drew greater criticism. The administration, however, stood by its decision. Now, roughly one third of Syria’s chemical weapons have left the country and the rate of exportation has actually increased.
The issue of chemical weapons in Syria illustrated the effectiveness of a diplomatic approach. Conflict was avoided and, ultimately, a more favorable outcome was the result. Nevertheless, critics remain. Many Americans either prefer or are simply used to the past use of direct intervention by the United States. Making concessions often raises fears that America will appear to be weaker than in the past, trying to appease other nations out of necessity. However, the reality is that America can act diplomatically because of its clout.
Theodore Roosevelt’s view on foreign policy is often quoted: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing. America’s capabilities, military or otherwise, are well-known. There is no need to resort to threats in order to assert dominance; most nations recognize that the military option, last resort or not, is always on the table. Therefore, it is often more advantageous for U.S. officials to take a less threatening approach. It prevents formation of the idea that the United States is forcing foreign powers to take certain paths and often makes other governments more receptive or willing to bargain without the U.S. having to give up anything.
This tactic was also evident during recent events in Ukraine. As protests raged throughout the country, the U.S. refrained from direct involvement, moving to support the Ukrainian opposition indirectly through economic options. This diplomatic approach prevented supporters of the Ukrainian government, specifically Russia, from having evidence to back their claims that Americans were interfering in Ukraine. It also avoided the concern that always arises when considering military support for revolutionaries: weapons falling into the hands of extremists.
The diplomatic approach continued to work successfully after the protesters took control of their government. When Russian forces moved into the Crimean region of Ukraine and asserted control over military bases, the U.S. again refrained from military involvement. Instead, it threatened to levy sanctions against and freeze the assets of Russian officials responsible for the troop movements. Furthermore, the Obama administration warned of the economic and trade consequences of such action, and made efforts to build European support.
Again, diplomacy was more successful than a military response would have been. With the Russian currency suffering and the promise of more economic consequences, Russia began allowing Ukrainian military forces to return to their posts and loosening its grip in the Crimean region. Although this situation is far from being entirely resolved, the events that have already transpired further support the American administration’s recent approach to such issues.
While military responses will undoubtedly be a necessity in the future, the recent efforts to avoid entering a conflict have proven a beneficial tactic. The use of force should remain a last resort; in most cases, it is entirely effective as a deterrent alone. Taking the political approach, although sometimes less popular, is ultimately the lowest risk way of pursuing American interests.