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Michael Axworthy

Academic, author and former diplomat, UK

Iran: talk is cheap

What will the US do about Iran over the next two years? Announcements on 25 October indicate the answer: intensify sanctions, strengthen international pressure but – for the present at least – don’t bomb (the US military appears to have rebelled over that prospect).

What will Iran do about the US? The new sanctions – particularly the financial ones – will make life difficult for the regime, but it has grown accustomed to living with sanctions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lost much of the (moderate) popularity he had when he was elected in 2005 (a poll in the summer of 2007 suggested more than 60 per cent of those who voted for him then would not vote for him now), but the danger is that sanctions will play into his hands. The promises he made to poor Iranians in 2005 look increasingly impossible for him to deliver. Sanctions could provide him with an alibi for that failure, and national feeling against perceived US bullying could save him.

It is conceivable that powerful Iranian politicians could remove him, but the rhetoric of resistance to the US and the West runs deep within the repressive clique that has ruled Iran since the revolution – they are comfortable with confrontation. It’s likely Ahmadinejad will see out his term of office until 2009.

The irony of the present situation is that the Iranian bogey is largely of the US’s making. It supported Saddam and the Taliban/al-Qaeda against Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, but then had to remove them when the cure turned out to be more dangerous than the disease. Now Iran’s position in the region stands strengthened by the actions of US-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iranians are not to blame for that, but they are quite content with it. They have been careful over these events on their borders – their interest, as they always repeat, is stability in both places. Blaming Iran for coalition problems in Iraq has been dishonest – the problems have been largely of the coalition’s own making (and, though scandalously under-reported, support for insurgents from within some neighbouring Sunni countries has killed many more coalition troops than whatever may have crossed over Iran’s borders into Iraq). The US’s struggle with Iran is largely a struggle with its own shadow. If the Iranians are pursuing a nuclear weapon (as most western governments believe), would they be doing so if not for the US threat of regime change? Is the US sponsoring would-be insurgents within Iran? The Iranians believe so.

The exception is Iranian actions and threats against Israel, which the Israelis have to take seriously. Yet an offer apparently made to the US by the Iranians in 2003 (shortly after the fall of Baghdad) indicated they might be prepared to accept de facto recognition of Israel in return for security guarantees. The US spurned that offer and rebuked the Swiss for passing it on. Although Ahmadinejad has replaced the more conciliatory government of that time, his importance is more apparent than real and other elements of the ruling group are much the same as they were.

The sensible course of action for the US and Iran is to engage in serious, direct negotiations to resolve their problems (this would be popular with most Iranians – as the demonstrations of sympathy after September 11 showed, the Iranian people are the most instinctively pro-American in the Middle East, outside of Israel). But we may have to wait until President Bush has left office. The present US administration seems more scared of the politics of negotiation than of the politics of sanctions – or even of pre-emptive military action. That is a position no democratic government should get itself into.

Michael Shifter

The inter-American dialogue, Washington DC

Latin America: trading places

Latin America is breaking away from US tutelage, under which it had sat for much of the 20th century. This trend has been discernible over the past few decades, but has accelerated in recent years. The region’s move towards greater independence clashes with Washington’s view of Latin America as an appendage of US foreign policy – its “backyard”.

The region’s geopolitical departure from the US line was on display at the United Nations in 2003, when Mexico and Chile – then non-permanent members of the Security Council and among the closest US allies in Latin America – defied Washington in the critical vote on the Iraq war. The US should expect more disappointments in the future as Latin America diversifies its relations.

No surprise, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela exemplifies this wider pattern – albeit with a particularly sharp edge of anti-US belligerence. He is flush with money thanks to record oil prices and shows no signs of loosening his grip on power. Chávez finds Venezuela – and even Latin America – too constricting for his grandiose ambitions, preferring to work the international stage with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This projection of power may be ephemeral, entirely dependent on the favourable energy market, but Chávez’s global reach touches a chord in a region that much of Washington still views as its strategic preserve.

Chávez is working to overcome his country’s vulnerability to Washington’s whims on two fronts: energy and security. The US now buys about 60 per cent of Venezuelan oil exports, but Chávez is trying to shift much of that market to China. The technical and economic obstacles are huge, but the political benefits are compelling – and to protect himself against possible US military action, Chávez has bought millions of dollars worth of Russian arms.

While the Chávez case is unique, other Latin American countries are becoming increasingly prominent international players. Brazil takes enormous pride in its global leadership on the production of ethanol and other biofuels. As a member of the BRIC nations (the group of emerging-market countries that also includes Russia, India and China), Brazil is forging closer political and economic ties with other major global powers as it works towards gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

China and India are largely behind the foreign investment and commodity boom that has made Latin American countries’ economic and foreign policy goals seem within reach. Chinese imports from Latin America, for example, have grown at about 60 per cent each year, to an estimated $60 billion in 2006. Chile signed a free-trade deal with China in 2005, while Peru, another copper exporter, is likely to follow suit in the near future. China’s ravenous appetite for energy and raw materials will continue to fuel the region’s spectacular growth – and glaring inequalities.

Mexico and Central America are still tied to the US, but even the recently announced package of anti-narcotics aid will not erase the bitterness over US neglect and ugly immigration politics. Mexico is attempting to expand its international relationships, as is Colombia, which is bound to pursue economic opportunities in Asia now the US Congress looks set to reject a trade deal already agreed by the White House. The US remains the first- or second-largest trading partner in most Latin American countries, but it is likely to become just another option among many.

The darker side of globalisation – which includes drug trafficking, organised crime and political instability – will continue to cast a shadow over Latin America. Drug consumption is shifting away from the US and towards Europe, Asia and even Latin America. Brazil has become the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

Uneven growth and political difficulties in the area mean that many more Latin Americans will join the 30 million-plus who’ve already left for the US and Europe – despite the unwelcome laws and attitudes that await them there. Remittances sent back to the region already exceed $60 billion.

These realities are incompatible with the idea that US and Latin American interests are one and the same. Washington will have to recognise its neighbours can no longer be taken for granted.

Malcolm Cook

The Lowy Institute, Sydney

China: power games

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will reflect two huge transformations: the shifting of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and China regaining its position as a global power at the heart of Asia. Just as the 1964 Games announced Japan as the leading power capable of reordering the world economy, the 2008 event will declare China as Asia’s leading power, reordering world commerce and politics. This summer, a growing number of great and powerful countries will bid to top the medal table. The United States will no doubt be there, followed closely by China and Russia, with a more assertive Japan moving up the ladder and India also seeking recognition.

In 2008, Asian and global issues will also feature the interplay of these same powers – and in a similar hierarchy. Ties of convenience – and a commitment between China, Russia and India in favour of a “multipolar” world (code for less US dominance) – are also set to be strengthened. Recently, for example, the foreign ministers of this trio jointly opposed Washington’s bid (with strong support from Tokyo) for sanctions against Burma.

The Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – with Russia as a member and India, Iran and Pakistan as observers – also queries the presence of US forces in its Central Asian members and promotes the benefits of a multipolar region and world. The Asia Pacific is no longer “an American lake”.

Staging the Olympics has visited unprecedented global attention on China, marked by effusive wonder over its spellbinding economic growth, but also barbed criticism over its support for pariah regimes, from Sudan to Zimbabwe to Burma. These contradictory images hint at a major problem facing Chinese diplomacy. It cannot sustain its long-standing policy of non-interference in other countries with the claim that it is but a poor, weak country, respecting sovereignty. For while China is certainly poor and remains fearful of foreign domination, its new status as a powerful state means the international community will heighten its criticism of perceived buck-passing on moral issues such as Burma and Darfur.

China’s demand for resources is entwining the country with such pariah states – it buys two thirds of Sudan’s oil, making it, in practice, the most important supporter of the Khartoum regime and a target for Darfur-related criticism. How China responds to the tension between its traditionally passive foreign policy and its status as a global power will determine the effectiveness of the international response to such states. It will also help to determine how China’s new status is viewed by the West and Japan, and by the populations suffering under these brutal governments.

Fortunately, 2008 promises fewer tensions and more hope in relation to East Asia’s two Cold War legacies: Taiwan and North Korea. In September 2007, Taipei became the first city ever to refuse a visit by the Olympic torch. Yet, in March 2008, Taiwan will hold presidential elections, which the Kuomintang, the party less keen on aggravating China, is likely to win. If it does, Taiwan and China could start talking again. Then the Olympic torch may triumphantly visit Taipei at the last moment.

While flags and the Olympics divide China and Taiwan, they unify North and South Korea. The two sides of the world’s most heavily armed border will compete under the same flag in Beijing – and 2008 also promises more slow, torturous progress on bringing North Korea in from its self-imposed, nuclear-tipped isolation. The political interests of the main players on the Korean peninsula – North Korea, the US, South Korea and China – are for progress and compromise. Unless Pyongyang reverses its present, somewhat cooperative stance, and lets off another nuclear device, 2008 should see a calmer peninsula.

Peter Reid

The Carnegie endowment for international peace, Washington DC

US: peace offerings

For the foreseeable future the US will remain the world’s sole superpower – a title it has held since the end of the Cold War. The problem with predicting what its role in the world will be like in several years’ time is that the answer probably lies in the unpredictable – what Harold Macmillan called “events”.

Absent of another terrorist attack, serious natural disaster, a Bush administration attack on Iran or even a political assassination on US soil, its role will not look, at first glance, much different than it does now. But its behaviour will be.

This much we know. Bush will have returned to Texas. And unless Gore can’t resist spoiling things, the Clintons should be back in the White House. This will lead to an outpouring of goodwill similar to that squandered by the Bush administration after September 11, thanks to the “war on terror”, the invasion of Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and its pro-Israeli stance, among other disasters.

Hillary Clinton will have learned from her predecessor’s mistakes (and from her close interest in Northern Ireland) that economic and military might do not give a country the ability to successfully implant its views – no matter how worthy – elsewhere; and that solving international problems requires a multilateral approach, which means talking to your enemies, not just your friends.

Clinton will probably move quickly to close Guantánamo Bay, returning its inmates to their home countries. Bill Clinton and Quartet envoy Tony Blair are likely to be involved in a massive American and European re-engagement in the Middle East, including Iran (where Ahmadinejad will probably have been ousted in the 2009 elections) and Syria, both of which are crucial to bringing peace to the region.

Iraq will be trickier. The power struggle which needed to happen after the toppling of Saddam will become even more intense. But the US will by then have learnt that there is no military solution. Hillary Clinton will confine US troops to protecting Iraq’s oil supply and assisting Iraqi forces to prevent al-Qaeda basing itself there, but this time in conjunction with neighbouring countries – the formula that has worked with North Korea. There will also be a greater focus on the deployment of US “soft power” – namely aid – than military might.

Apart from restoring America’s image, Clinton’s new approach will be necessary to confront the critical challenges that may face the world: a pandemic caused by a disease more easily contracted than Aids; shortage of world resources due to global warming and overpopulation; a breakdown in nuclear nonproliferation led by a nuclear-armed Iran, dramatically increasing the number of nuclear-armed nations and therefore the risk of war, an accident, or a weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.

Addressing these challenges will require a recognition that multilateral cooperation is essential, and that the pieces on the international chess board have moved with the rise of other superpowers. Witness the ascent of China, whose dragon economy will overtake that of the US within a couple of decades, if not sooner, and the resurgence of Russia, flush with petrodollars and most likely led by Putin for another decade.

America’s approach to being the sole superpower has always been arrogant and unilateral, engendering suspicion, resentment and fear. Preventing international checkmate on the world stage will drive Clinton to adopt a very dif­ferent approach to US relations with the rising powers. Without this, the world faces a return to the gridlocked days of the Cold War on the UN Security Council, resulting in even greater argument, division and inaction when it can least afford it.

In two to three years’ time, the US will still lead a world facing unparalleled challenges. The future of our species, and the planet, will depend on whether America and the rest of the world can break inherent habits – aggression and tribalism – and learn from past mistakes.

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