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The dilemma of big power diplomacy

Whatever foreign policy is adopted by the incoming Joe Biden administration will not resolve the problems affecting our present world order. The world is in a transitory phase, and the old rules governing international relations are being replaced with new rules.

Traditionally, civil wars are mano-a-mano affairs; the parties slug it out until only one remains standing. The United States fought its civil war from 1861 to 1865 without outside interference until the Union forces prevailed. Modern civil wars no longer follow this rule; they have become international wars with each side bringing in outside forces. This has resulted in wars without end. An example is Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded the country in 1978; eventually most Muslim countries and the big powers got involved. Notwithstanding the Soviet withdrawal in 1987, there is no end in sight to this conflict. The same holds true in the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia.

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In earlier times, it is not unusual for the victor to ransack a losing country and enslave its population. However, the modern world can no longer tolerate such solution. The finger-pointing after the Rwanda massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus in the 1990s underline the complex issues that the modern world has to face in such ethnic struggles.

Had the Nato not intervened during the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Muslim population would have been eliminated by ethnic cleansing. Contrast this with the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia, which was halted by Vietnamese intervention. Hanoi got the opprobrium of Asean and other countries for its intervention in Cambodia. Thus, the unresolved issue today is, does the world stand aside and tolerate ethnic cleansing, or does it interfere, thus prolonging a civil war?

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In addition to the foregoing problem, the world is beset with asymmetrical conflicts. The big powers keep on building expensive weapons like stealth aircraft, hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons, etc. However, these weapons cannot be used in resolving the civil wars now going on in the world. These weapons are designed for big power confrontation, which is an unlikely scenario since this would result in mutual assured destruction.

In the First Committee of the UN (Disarmament), it had been postulated for many years that if the big powers agreed to end the arms race, the amounts saved would be enough to eradicate poverty in the Third World within 20 years. However, these proposals would fall on deaf ears. So the question is, which of the big powers will be the first to try to break the deadlock and initiate moves to reduce defense expenditures in favor of increasing aid to developing countries?

During the past century, there were only two brief windows when such disarmament by the big powers was achieved. The first opportunity was in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 whereby the five major naval powers—Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy—agreed to limit capital ships at the ratio of 5; 5; 3; 1.75, and 1.75 respectively. This agreement lasted only up to 1936, when Japan, Italy, and later Germany renounced the agreement. These countries renounced the treaty because they had become revisionist powers seeking to dismantle the territorial agreements under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

The second opportunity for a big power reduction of armaments was the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. But this window of opportunity promptly vanished with the accession to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. These two have replaced Mussolini and Hitler as revisionists. Their antics are a barrier to a program to exchange weapons for development assistance. Big power diplomacy thus continues as an arms race.

It requires only two villains to disrupt world peace. Unfortunately, we have aligned our foreign policy with the revisionists.

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Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career ambassador who served in this capacity in the United Nations, the Soviet Union, Chile, and Bolivia.

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TAGS: Diplomacy, United States, us foreign policy, US president-elect Joe Biden
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