Diplomacy, not saber-rattling

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

bu-op-icons-satur“…Leadership and credibility in a crisis mean reacting coolly and rationally, not rattling sabers, or rushing into economic warfare that allies may or may not support, or painting ‘red lines’ that the other side can cross with impunity.”

Thus the International New York Times posits in its March 6 editorial, titled “A rational response to Moscow.” It refers to the “angry demands for immediate sanctions against Russia” for sending troops to the autonomous Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine (where Russia maintains a large naval base).

More pointedly, it responds to charges that President Obama is “somehow ‘losing’ in the confrontation to (President) Putin and thus endangering Washington’s credibility and global leadership.”

The editorial’s nuanced advice: the US and its European allies “must prepare contingency plans for any escalation of Russian aggression” but at the same time “reassure Mr. Putin that the West appreciates Russia’s historic ties to Ukraine and has no interest in turning Kiev [Ukraine’s capital] against Moscow.”

Before the Ukraine crisis erupted, the INYT published an article titled “What would Kennan say to Obama?” by Frank Costigliola, a history professor who edited the book, “The Kennan Doctrine.”

The article synthesizes the salient views of George F. Kennan, the famed US diplomat-author, architect of the “containment policy” directed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. He continued writing on foreign policy in his diary until his death, at 101, on March 17, 2005.

After the unraveling of the Soviet Union, the NATO under US leadership began expanding into its former member-states (Ukraine is one). Kennan “fiercely opposed” such a move against Russia, and such maneuvering is being blamed by Putin for the political developments in Ukraine.

Kennan’s distilled advice and criticisms provide useful guides for evaluating US foreign policy and multiple overseas military adventures. They can be highly instructive for governments in dealing with geopolitical crises, such as the territorial disputes in the West Philippine/South China Sea, involving the Philippines and China.

Briefly, here are some of Kennan’s views as synthesized by Costigliola:

• The wisest foreign policy limits military intervention abroad while affording the “broadest scope for hard-headed diplomacy.” (His strategic vision entailed “containing adversaries, curtailing US foreign ventures, and conserving American moral and material assets”).

• The challenge facing America has been “containing not only rival nations and threatening ideologies,” but also its “own outsized ambitions and self-righteous assertions of virtue.”

(Having intended to limit the application of his containment policy to the major power centers, Kennan was “horrified” as containment expanded into a global venture, miring America in “areas of marginal strategic importance, such as Vietnam,” where the US lost its war of aggression.)

• The US military interventions in Panama, Somalia, and Iraq were a “waste of scarce resources.” Trying to spread democracy by military force “is something that the [US] Founding Fathers never envisaged or would never have approved.”

• Even if bargaining positions start off at loggerheads, “they can evolve toward compromise if diplomats receive reasonable freedom to cut deals.” Diplomacy and “soft power” (attract and co-opt, not coerce or bribe) are more cost-effective in influencing a rival’s intentions. “We are ultimately dependent on the intentions, rather than the capabilities, of the adversary, the influence of which is primarily a political and psychological, not a military problem.”

The last point is a relevant guidepost for handling the Philippine-China maritime conflict. It finds resonance in a written manifestation recently at a House foreign affairs committee hearing of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, presented by its chair, UP political scientist Temario C. Rivera.

CenPEG urges the P-Noy government to explore bilateral talks with China. This is a better option, it says, than the two steps taken so far which are “shortsighted and counterproductive.” These are:

1. Seeking to strengthen the Phl-US military alliance by increasing American “rotational” troop presence and “uninhibited access to Philippine military facilities and resources” under the US “pivot/rebalancing” to Asia scheme. (This step has further provoked Chinese aggressiveness, because China regards the pivot/rebalancing scheme as an “American containment policy” towards its rise as a major regional power); and

2. Submitting Phl sovereign claims over the disputed islands for arbitration to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Even if ITLOS rules favorably on the claims, CenPEG points out, it will not necessarily resolve the dispute because China refuses to participate in the process. Experience has also shown that “major powers have ignored and defied international law when decisions conflict with their perceived national interests.”

“One advantage of bilateral talks,” CenPEG emphasizes, “is that it opens up for discussion and negotiation many nuances of a disputed issue that cannot be addressed in a strictly rules-based form of arbitration such as at the ITLOS.”

“Moreover,” it adds, “many sensitive political issues that cannot be discussed in a legal arbitration format can be better addressed and threshed out in more informal bilateral talks.”

On objections raised that bilateral talks with China (being a big power) will put the Philippines at a disadvantage, CenPEG avers that if negotiations tend to be one-sided “we can always back out.”

A sound proposition this is. Will the P-Noy government take it on?

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E-mail: satur.ocampo@gmail.com
March 8, 2014

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