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'The only certainty is uncertainty'

Interview: Spencer Kimball
September 13, 2013

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has released its 2013 report on trends in world affairs. Editor Alexander Nicoll tells DW why Western nations have struggled to react to events in the Mideast.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Jan. 17, 2011) The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65)leads the ships of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55), the guided-missile destroyers USS Bulkeley (DDG 84), USS Barry (DDG 52) and USS Mason (DDG 87) underway in the Atlantic Ocean. Embarked aboard Enterprise are the eight squadrons of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Anna Wade/Released) ***US NAVY-HANDOUT, KEIN JOURNALISTISCHEN STANDARDS ENTSPRECHENDES AGENTURFOTO*** Quelle:http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnavy/5387910936/sizes/o/in/photolist-9d7sd9-9iL4co-eVieEU-9MnVGB-9d4jkr-baGeMF-9iCHeg-btdfB5-9rDT9L-9Ei44C-9MnVZp-9d4kqX-cLENQY/
The US has increased its military presence in the Mediterranean in anticipation of strikes in SyriaImage: U.S. Navy/Anna Wade/Released

DW: The 2013 IISS Strategic Survey concludes that this year, world leaders have been "living tactically" as they struggled to manage fast-paced developments in the Middle East in particular. What does it mean for policymakers to "live tactically" in world politics?

Alexander Nicoll: What this idea basically reflects is that in the past few years there have been a number of very fast moving developments that were unpredicted - mainly the Arab Spring. And where Western countries found themselves in difficulties as to what their overall approach to these developments should be, and seeing some risk in coming down definitively on one side or another in whatever the situation was.

Therefore, it has made it much more difficult for them to build their foreign policies around an overall strategic approach. I think that is reflected if you look at the defense policy documents that have been produced by a number of countries: the US, Britain, France, Germany. If you look at those kinds of white papers you'll see that they characterize world affairs as being surrounded in uncertainty and that basically the only certainty is uncertainty.

So that then makes it very difficult to plot policy. And then more specifically, you're very familiar with the dilemma presented by the Egyptian revolution and now more recently the dilemmas presented by the Syrian civil war.

Why is it so difficult for Western nations to come down definitively on one side or another in the current crises in the Middle East?

If one looks at Egypt for example, the US had been a strong supporter of the Mubarak regime through military aid and many other ways for decades. And then [the US] was presented with a situation where that regime was rapidly on the way out and a completely unknown situation [was] confronting it, in other words a basically leaderless revolution at the time, and great uncertainty about how it would come out, whether it would still be the army which was dominant. You'll remember that the Muslim Brotherhood was not present in the revolution as such, and it really only emerged later.

So that makes it very difficult for governments to calculate their interests. You obviously want your foreign policy to have some weight and not to be supporting something that turns out not to be real.

Bildbeschreibung: Alexander Nicoll, editor of Strategic Survey at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Rechte: IISS Angeliefert von: Spencer Kimball am 12.9.2013
Alexander NicollImage: IISS

I think that President (Barack) Obama among others understood that the capacity of the United States and the West in general to influence those events was limited. And this was obviously a big change from past decades where the West played an enormous role in the politics of the Middle East. This is frustrating to some politicians in America, as we can see. So President Obama is accused of dithering and changing his position. But actually this reflects the fact that perhaps America is somewhat of a diminished power compared to what it was some time ago.

Where do Western nations derive the legitimacy to try and influence events in the Middle East?

I suppose they would argue that they derived their authority to do so from treaties and United Nations resolution taken over many years, and in the case of the current situation in Syria, from the chemical weapons convention. The attempt to prevent the use of chemical weapons according to treaty obligations is one of the arguments for American strikes on Syria right now. But of course it's not the only argument.

The point was also raised that many Western leaders are unsure of their political strength at home, and therefore are reluctant to take genuine strategic action in international affairs. What leaders have been weakened domestically and why? How does this affect their foreign policies?

What we've seen is that governments that agreed to take part in the invasion of Iraq were heavily criticized at home, that the adventure was generally seen as a failure, and those that led it have been discredited. So no leader wants to get into that situation again. And I think we've seen that particularly with Syria.

We saw in Britain, the prime minister engaging in what he probably thought would be a rather easy approval process for strikes on Syria and suddenly finding it wasn't easy - in fact he was defeated. So clearly, he absolutely did not want to get into the same situation as one of his predecessors and quickly bowed to the will of parliament. But that then makes it difficult from him to strike any kind of position regarding Syria for the future.

And similarly we saw Obama deciding that yes, he had the right to go and launch strikes on Syria, but that he needed to or wanted to get some kind of political approval. And of course we're not going to know whether he would have obtained it or not.

Some Western nations have had trouble balancing their strategic interests with their principles in the Middle East, according to the Strategic Survey. Why is it so difficult for the West to bring its interests and principles into agreement?

A statement of the obvious: Every single country has a set of different interests. In the past, it was probably easier to strike common interests because the basic interests were the same. We needed stability in the Middle East; we depended on oil supplies and so forth. Now that sort of convergence of interests has broken up somewhat.

There are changes in the energy market and also we have the legacy of Iraq. You just can't shake off that legacy. If you start to talk about military action, then you're going to get a wide range of views and every government is going to feel differently about it. You're seeing a kind of splintering.

Alexander Nicoll is the editorial director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, where he edits the institute's annual review of world affairs, Strategic Survey. Nicoll has previously worked for the Financial Times and Business Standard, India's second largest business newspaper. He was also a correspondent for the Reuters news agency in Hong Kong, London, Paris, Tehran and New York.

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