It may turn out that May 17, 2010 will be remembered as an important milestone on the road to a real new world order. Remember that the phrase ‘new world order’ came to prominence in 1990 after Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. It was used by George W. H. Bush, the elder of the two Bush presidents, to signify the possibility after the end of the Cold War to find a consensus within the UN Security Council enabling a unified response to aggressive war. The new world order turned out to be a mobilizing idea invoked for a particular situation. The United States did not want to create expectations that it would always be available to lead a coalition against would be breakers of world peace. The whole undertaking of a ‘new world order’ disappeared from diplomacy right after the First Gulf War of 1991. What one wonders now is whether the Brazilian/Turkish effort to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis with the West is not expressive of a new world, this time a ‘real new world order.’
May 17th was the day that the Brazilian/Turkish initiative bore fruit in Tehran, with Iran agreeing to a ten-point arrangement designed to defuse the mounting confrontation with the United States and Israel with regard to its enrichment facilities. The essence of the deal was that Iran would ship 1200 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey for deposit, and receive in return 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20% for use in an Iranian nuclear reactor devoted to medical research. The agreement reaffirmed support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as acknowledged Iran’s right under the treaty to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which meant the entire fuel cycle, including the enrichment phase.
The bargain negotiated in Tehran closely resembled an arrangement reached some months earlier in which Iran had agreed to turn over a similar amount of low enriched uranium to France and Russia in exchange for their promise of providing fuel rods that could be used in the same medical research reactor. That earlier deal floundered as Iran raised political objections, and then withdrew. The United States had welcomed this earlier arrangement as a desirable confidence-building step toward resolving the underlying conflict, but it wasted no time repudiating the May 17th agreement, which seemed so similar.
Why the discrepancy in the American response? It is true that in recent months Iran has increased its LEU production, making 1200 kg of its existing stockpile amount to 50% of its total rather than the 80% that would have been transferred in the earlier arrangement. Also, there were some unspecified features in the May 17th plan, including how the enriched uranium would be provided to Iran, and whether there would be a system of verification as to its use. In this regard, it would have seemed appropriate if genuinely troubled by this for Washington to request Iran to transfer a larger quantity of LEU and to spell out the details, but this is not what happened.
Instead of welcoming this notable effort to reduce regional tensions, the Brazilian/Turkish initiative was immediately branded as an amateurish irrelevance by the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. She insisted that the concerns about Iranian nuclear enrichment be left exclusively in the hands of the ‘major powers,’ and immediately rallied China and Russia (in addition to France and the United Kingdom) to support a fourth round of punitive sanctions that were to be presented to the UN Security Council in the near future. It now appears that the five permanent members of the Security Council will support this intensification of sanctions that is expected to call for an arms embargo on heavy weapons, travel restrictions on Iranian officials, a boycott of banks and companies listed as linked to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and authority to search ships to and from Iran suspected of carrying prohibited items. Such a resolution if implemented would certainly increase tensions in the Middle East without any discouragement of the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed a new round of sanctions would almost certainly increase Iran’s incentives to exercise its full rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and complete its development of the complete fuel cycle as has been previously done by several other parties to the treaty, including Japan, Germany, and The Netherlands.
Given the generally constructive character of the agreement reached in Tehran, the uncompromisingly hostile reaction in Washington can only be understood in one of two ways, neither of which is reassuring. If the U.S. Government, with or without Israeli prodding, had already resolved to impose sanctions, then any development that seems to cast doubt on such a coercive approach would be regarded as unwelcome. The evidence strongly suggests that the United States was determined to go forward with additional sanctions. This made the Brazil/Turkey initiative seem like a deliberate obstruction that was essentially resented as it has been reported that American leaders tried in talk Brasilia and Ankara out of making any independent steps to resolve the crisis.
Perhaps, the more weighty explanation of the hostile response has to do with the changing cast of players in the geopolitical power game. If this reasoning is correct, then the United States angry response was intended to deliver a reprimand to Brazil and Turkey, warning them to leave questions pertaining to nuclear weapons in the hands of what Hilary Clinton called ‘the major powers.’ In effect, the non-Western world should have no say in shaping global security policy, and any attempt to do so would be rebuffed in the strongest possible terms.
Yet the world of 2010 is very different from what it was in the late 20th century. Globalization, the decline of American power, and the rise of non-Western states have changed the landscape. This process has recently accelerated as a result of the world economic crisis, and the difficulties in the Euro zone. As the famous Bob Dylan 1960’s song goes, “The times, they are a-changing.” Recall that it was not long ago that the G-8 was scrapped in favor of the more inclusive G-20. Recently, as well, much attention has been given to the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries. What seems most at stake in this attempt to supersede and nullify the Iran deal is banishing the Brazilian and Turkish intruders from the geopolitical playing field. For the West to claim that the Security Council remains representative of the arrangement of power in 2010 is ludicrous. The identity of the five permanent members has not been altered since 1945, which is a misguided effort to overlook the fundamental shifts in world power that have taken place in recent decades. Both Brazil and Turkey were elected to be non-permanent two year members of the Security Council, which both governments interpret as conferring a special responsibility to work for peace and justice in the world. AS the May 17th agreement shows, these governments possess the political will to make a difference in world politics.
Further, this is not just a childish ploy to grab a few headlines and tweak the old guard. The confrontation with Iran is exceedingly dangerous, agitated by Israel’s periodic threats of launching a military attack and reports of pushing the United States in an escalating direction. Such a strategy of tension could easily produce a devastating regional war, disrupting the world economy, and causing widespread human suffering. Both Brazil and Turkey have strong national interests in working for regional peace and security, and one way to do this is to calm the diplomatic waters with regard to Iran’s contested nuclear program. The fact that Iran seems prepared to go ahead with the agreement, at least if the UN refrains from further sanctions, strongly favors giving the deal a chance to succeed, or at worst, working to make it more reassuring to those countries that suspect Iran of secretly planning to become a nuclear weapons state.
The concern about Iran seems genuine in many quarters, given the inflammatory language sometimes used by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and considering the repressive internal practices in Iran. At the same time, even in this regard the United States leadership has rather dirty hands. While insisting that Iran cannot be allowed to do what several other non-nuclear states have already done in conformity with Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States has acknowledged that it has been engaged in a variety of military activities under Pentagon auspices within Iranian territory. (For confirmation see Mark Mazzeti, “U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast,” NY Times, May 24, 2010). Also, it is impossible to overlook the dispiriting silence that has long insulated Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal from scrutiny and censure, as well as the closely related refusal of the Western powers to back proposals put forward by Egypt and others for a nuclear free Middle East.
Back in 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, made headlines by contrasting ‘Old Europe’ (especially France and Germany) that he denigrated as decadent because it opposed the invasion of Iraq, and ‘New Europe’ that was the flourishing wave of the future in Eastern Europe that favored American policy. Now it is Old Europe that is again partnering with the United States, and so restored to the good graces of Washington. In this sense, Brazil and Turkey are being treated as trespassers who refuse to absent themselves from any further engagement in Middle East diplomacy.
Perhaps, we are witnessing the passing of an era in world politics, which has not yet been acknowledged. It is two decades since Charles Krauthammer, writing in Foreign Affairs, declared that “The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.” The abrupt rejection of the Brazil/Turkey initiative can probably best understood as a nostalgic clinging to the ‘unipolar moment’ long after its reality has passed into history.
Turkey has already demonstrated the enormous gains for itself and the region arising from the pursuit of an independent and activist foreign policy based on resolving conflicts and reducing tensions to the extent possible, with benefits for peace, stability, and prosperity. Not all of its initiatives have met with success. It tried to encourage the world to treat Hamas as a political actor after it fairly won elections in Gaza back in January 2006, but was rebuffed by Washington and Tel Aviv. Similarly, it brought to bear its mediating skill in trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria, only to have the process break down after a series of promising negotiating rounds. Maybe also the Brazil/Turkey initiative will be effectively beaten down, but that would not mean it was not worth trying, or that such governments should not keep trying to supplant war and militarism with diplomacy and cooperative international relations. Outside of Western diplomatic circles it is already widely appreciated that the May 17th agreement reveals the exciting reality of a new geopolitical landscape in which the countries of the global South are now beginning to act as subjects, and no longer content to be mere objects in scenarios devised in the North. At some point this reality might well be christened as the ‘real new world order’!
Richard Falk , Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and author of “Crimes of War: Iraq” and “The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after Iraq” Also, current UN Rapporteur for Palestine.