Those of us of a certain age will remember the phrase ‘DTs’, short for delirium tremens: a rapid onset of confusion caused by an alcoholic’s immediate abstinence. Is the world suffering from a different set of DTs: the rapid-fire onset of domestic and global crises by a confused president revelling in his role as the wrecker-in-chief of international law, global norms and diplomatic conventions?
Donald Trump is the first US twitter president. Twitter has been the great enabler of instant moral condemnation and career-ending punishment based on accusations. Investigations and proof of guilt following due process is so last century for the self-righteous inhabitants of twitterati. It is perhaps not surprising then that the social media-driven short-circuiting of methodical investigations conducted by independent and impartial agencies; establishment of facts about alleged criminality; and proof of guilt, is cross-infecting DT’s foreign policy behaviour.
First, you demonize your opponent, helped immeasurably if he should be a dictator like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad undoubtedly is. Then you accuse him of conscience-shocking atrocities that provoke demands TO DO SOMETHING. Finally, you smite him with missiles – Washington’s preferred diplomatic calling card against those who refuse to kowtow to US dictates – to prove your macho credentials, declare mission accomplished, and bask in the afterglow of applause from admirers. If the timing helps to distract attention from accumulating domestic crises and a critical book or two just published, that is pure coincidence.
In striking Syria with missiles on 8 April, the US, UK and France argue they deployed their military power to uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The moral case depends on whether chemical weapons were indeed used and, if so, by whom. If by Assad and the strikes deter future use by him and other would-violators of the global norm, then – setting aside questions about Trump’s capacity for moral reasoning – the strikes are anchored in a specific moral framework. But if the chemical weapons were used by rebels – who are no less unsavoury than Assad – with the goal of provoking US military attacks on Assad, then of course they will have the opposite effect, encouraging future uses by Syrian and other rebels anywhere in the world hoping to internationalise their civil wars in order to offset domestic military imbalance with government forces.
A recurring flaw of US foreign policy in recent decades has been the imperative ‘to do something’. On 13 April a group called the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, who had warned about false WMD claims in Iraq in 2003, asked Trump to ‘obtain and review actual evidence from the site of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, before ordering any military action’. In particular:
One must… consider the possibility that the supposed chlorine gas attack at Douma may have been a carefully constructed propaganda fraud. Such a fraud would have as its purpose the elicitation of precisely the kind of political pressure that now has you contemplating military action. In other words, Mr President, this may be a bid to mousetrap you into a war that neither you nor your fellow Americans want nor need.
Thus the call was not to do nothing, but to decide on appropriate action after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had done its work as the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, and compelling evidence was available to discount the possibility of a false flag operation by groups that were on the run on the battlefield and stood most to gain from Western military strikes on Assad.
However, the strikes do not prove that Trump is a warmonger. The military action was limited in firepower, duration and choice of targets. The strikes signalled a determination to punish Assad for violating publicly declared US red lines against the use of chemical weapons. By limiting the targets precisely to three chemical arms facilities, they deliberately avoided crossing Russia’s red lines in Syria.
That said, giving in to the urge ‘to do something’ fails to clarify any broader and longer-term strategy in which the military action is anchored. One-off strikes are not game changers in any conflict but the military equivalent of a strong diplomatic démarche. Great powers pursue imperial, not ethical, foreign policies and the US is today’s greatest power. In their effort to enforce international humanitarian law that prohibits the use of chemical weapons, Britain, France and the US violated the international law governing the use of force. The missile strikes on Syria were not under UN authorisation and, even if Assad was responsible for the chemical attack on Douma, that was not an armed attack on the US, UK or France.
The net effect might well be to devalue the role of law and norms in regulating state conduct and stimulating a remilitarisation of world affairs. To be sure, the strikes degraded Assad’s chemical arsenal. But their strategic effect is indeed the equivalent of pinpricks. They do not negate the brutal reality that Assad has won the war and is now mopping up. The Syrian civil war in which half a million people have been killed and 13 million rendered homeless and stateless is a multi-layered and complex fight to the death for a host of local and foreign militias with neither Russia nor the US in control of their respective proxies operating without moral scruples, normative restraint or respect for the laws of armed conflict.
Thus the Syrian crisis shines a spotlight on the role of morality, legality, strategic wisdom and institution-building in underpinning world order. The sad reality is that, contrary to its historical role in creating and policing the liberal international order after 1945, today the destructive and disruptive capacity of the United States exceeds its ability and will to be creative and innovative in constructing a new architecture of world order.
The attacks show the impotence of the UN in checking any illegal use of force and breaches of international law by the major powers, from the strikes on Syria by the US, France and Britain to China’s defiance of the international tribunal’s ruling on its dispute with the Philippines, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and the US, British and Australian invasion of Iraq. Most ominously for Australia, the strikes will reinforce China’s faith in a powerful military shield on the one hand, and confirm its contempt for international law as a restrictive leash on great power behaviour, on the other.
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University.