It has long been a truism among pundits that coercive diplomacy is imprudent and usually ineffective. Diplomatic history suggests that it is nearly impossible for one country, however powerful, to compel another to change its values and outlook. The US may be stronger than Iran, but it would be wise to seek a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse. The answer to the Syrian imbroglio is to craft a power-sharing arrangement between Bashar al-Assad and his detractors. Such sentiments ignore recent changes in the international system that now make diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions effective in disciplining adversaries. We may be entering an age where the US and its European allies can achieve their maximalist objectives in the Middle East without resorting to force.
During the cold war, Soviet arms and commerce kept rogue regimes afloat. In the 1990s, clever despots could exploit a divergence between the US and Europe on how to deal with such states, as punitive US measures were undermined by a European policy of critical dialogue that was often more dialogue than criticism. Iran, Syria and even Iraq may have lost Soviet benediction but they found room to prosper as the west seemed divided against itself.
Ironically, the first signs of convergence appeared during the Bush presidency. Once the allies put the divisive issue of Iraq behind them, they found much common ground. Washington accepted the need for international coalitions to deal with regional problems, and a new generation of European leaders such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy began to see that financial incentives and soothing words were unlikely to temper hardened ideologues. The Obama administration strengthened this alliance and firmly anchored it on international organisations.
The Arab spring is now unleashing democratic contagion and a new western unity that may hasten the end of Middle East autocracies. The despots of anaemic economies cannot pay off their revolting masses if sanctions prevent them selling commodities abroad or raising loans once easily available from Paris and London. Given Muammer Gaddafi's predicament, they must weigh the temptation to use violence against their citizens against the risk of military intervention. The US and Europe have seemingly set realism aside and stress that how governments treat their populations will condition their response.
Russia and China may protest and try to water down UN mandates, but they are unlikely to save fading autocrats. In Libya's case, Russia put its relationship with France before any lingering ties to Col Gaddafi. For all the alarmist depictions of China's rising power, the cautious men who rule Beijing appreciate that American and European centrality in the global markets is more important to their well-being than recalcitrant Middle Eastern dictators.
Syria is the first real test of this new western resolve. If Washington and its allies manage to degrade Bashar al-Assad's economy and isolate him diplomatically, they will have created conditions for protest to persist. The more it persists, the more likely it is that the ruling class will fracture, military officers defect – and the regime may just collapse. Force will not be used: it need not be. And the nervous mullahs ruling Iran know that the demise of their Syrian ally must affect their own precarious hold on power.
At times the international system undergoes imperceptible yet momentous changes. The convergence of the US and Europe may not have been sufficient to transform the Middle East, but the Arab spring offers an opportunity to put this new, shared purpose to constructive use. Such moments don't come often and don't last forever: this is a weighty juncture in history for western leaders.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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