After he returned from a diplomatic mission to Iran that led to the release of two American hikers, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick explained the impetus for the trip. “The political channel doesn’t do too well right now,” he said of the meeting with Iranian religious leaders. “There should be another channel. The other channel is the religious channel.”
The same week, Nicolas Sarkozy of France called for European and Arab leaders to take a greater role in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “Let us stop believing that a single country or a small group of countries can resolve so complex a problem,” President Sarkozy said. “Too many crucial players have been sidelined for our efforts to succeed.”
The two events underline an emerging reality of 21st-century diplomacy: the U.S. government no longer serves as the world’s negotiator in chief. That fact may be troubling to some, but it should not be. The cause of peace is better served when it is embraced by the entire international community.
The waning influence of U.S. power has been difficult to ignore. Weakened by two wars abroad and an anemic economy at home, Washington simply does not command the same respect it once did. In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel publicly challenged President Obama on his plan for Middle East peace. It is hard to imagine a previous Israeli prime minister treating Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan this way, even if he enjoyed the same support from Congress as Mr. Netanyahu. Clearly, the prime minister knew the political winds were shifting.
Washington has also failed in other international endeavors; free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama languished for months. Even the New Start treaty with Russia carries with it the whiff of political disappointment. While previous missile treaties helped pave the way for political reforms, change is unlikely to come to Vladimir Putin’s Russia anytime soon. The Obama White House should not be blamed for these failures. A Republican president would face the same constraints on American power.
There have been positive developments, too, notably the campaign in Libya. Here the United States wisely chose not to take the lead in the military action. The White House was ridiculed by the right for describing its policy as “leading from behind,” but that approach was just what was required. By allowing France and Britain to direct the campaign, the United States both strengthened the bond of the international community and furthered the cause of peace. President Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been called “consequentialist,” a sophisticated way of saying that he cares more about results than appearances. This tactic may not sit well with some Americans, who seem to prefer isolationism to a reduced role for the United States in foreign affairs. Yet at this point in American history, a lower international profile is necessary; it could also prove surprisingly effective.
The United States ought to follow that policy in relation to the statehood of Palestine. Unfortunately, on this issue the United States seems to care more about appearances than results. In his speech to the United Nations, President Obama spoke strongly against Palestine’s bid for U.N. recognition despite wide international support for the proposal. His remarks were political, not practical, and threaten to isolate the United States and Israel even more than they already are. At this crucial juncture it would be better for the United States to step away from negotiations and allow other countries to explore paths to peace. President Sarkozy has proposed one such plan; and other international leaders, including members of the Arab community, should be encouraged to do so as well. Recall that the first direct agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization originated in Oslo, not Camp David.
It is also important to remember that not all successful diplomatic initiatives originate from the halls of power. Cardinal McCarrick’s mission to Iran is a classic example of what can be achieved by leaders who are not associated with the U.S. government. In other regions Catholic peacebuilders play an essential role in bringing warring factions together. In South Sudan the church will be a crucial player in the country’s journey toward democracy. The U.S. government should allow these initiatives to flourish without undue interference. It can begin by revisiting the section of the Patriot Act that makes it a crime for any group, including those working for peace, to have contact with designated terrorist organizations. Political reconciliation will not be achieved if we prohibit contact with unsavory individuals. In the new world order, the United States must be concerned about peace above all and must work with all willing parties to move closer to that elusive goal.