Diplomacy is on hold for the moment, but there should be no mistaking the diplomatic significance of the war in Iraq. While the debates in the United Nations failed to prevent war, they triggered subtle changes in the geopolitical landscape that could fundamentally reshape the complexion of diplomacy. An impressive number of countries spoke their minds with previously unseen conviction. In doing so, they signaled that they will pursue foreign affairs with greater independence in the future. The United States will surely remain the world's military and economic power, but its relationships with and influence relative to other countries will change. It will not continue to dominate geopolitics as it has since the end of the Cold War. Right now the change is almost imperceptible, but it will become evident in coming years as the world confronts a number of even more serious international crises.
The most obvious potential crisis is on the Korean Peninsula, where the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea is likely to force action in the region within the next year. Then there is Iran, which may have nuclear aspirations of its own, and where religious conservatives and secular reformers are vying for control of institutions amidst an increasingly restive population. India and Pakistan have not been outwardly hostile of late, but the many serious disputes between those nuclear rivals are far from resolution. Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country, is struggling to stay intact socially and politically. And it is probable that incidents of terrorism will continue to occur at a troubling rate.
Several countries will be poised to exercise increased influence in the face of these inevitable challenges. The country that will gain most in strategic importance is China. While China was a relatively passive participant in the Iraq debate, the current formation of a younger, more modern government will position it well for increased leadership after the war. Such leadership will be critical if the world is to coax Kim Jong-il out of his nuclear ambitions and avoid conflict in North Asia. China has a substantial interest in reducing tensions with North Korea, and its involvement is ultimately indispensable to peace. China's growing importance will also loom large in its relations with an increasingly vocal Taiwan, and in the disputes between India and Pakistan (to which China has been accused of providing nuclear support). Often a reluctant participant in matters diplomatic, China's ability to influence international affairs will be commensurate to its desire.
Russia may gain in influence as well. While it is not yet an equal player on the world's diplomatic stage, it has matured considerably in the last decade. President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov have been visible and outspoken critics of U.S.-led action in Iraq, and regardless of how the war turns out they will approach the next crisis with increased confidence and credibility. (This of course presumes that Russia puts a stop to the alleged sales by Russian companies of military equipment to Iraq.) A Russia more sure of itself could help in defusing a Korean crisis, a region in which it too has an intimate interest in stability. Moreover, if it so chooses, Russia can do much to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and material to countries such as Iran, and be an effective ally against terrorism, a problem with which it is all too familiar.
The diplomatic influence of Europe will no doubt change as a result of the war, but it is unclear in which direction. That is precisely because the term "Europe" is not susceptible of any precise definition. If it means the European Union, one might expect it to have less future influence, as the EU strives hopelessly to develop a common foreign and security policy. If it means the individual countries of Western Europe, one must look at each country separately. If "Europe" includes the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that will soon enter the EU, one should expect greater reliance on transatlantic relations than on any Franco-German axis. Regardless of how one defines Europe, what is clear is that national governments will express increasing individualism in foreign policy matters.
Finally, a number of large developing countries will, whether they wish to or not, gain importance diplomatically. The efforts of Indonesia - a predominantly Muslim country of 200 million - to remain united and maintain peace will largely determine the stability of Southeast Asia. Brazil's struggle to achieve economic stability will significantly affect the political and economic health of South America. Colombia's and Venezuela's efforts to deal with drugs and political turmoil will greatly impact the Western Hemisphere. And countries such as the Philippines, Turkey, and Egypt will be called upon to address the spread of terrorism.
The United States will be tempted to regret the change in its relative power, so accustomed is it to exercising unquestioned leadership in global affairs. Yet as the above examples show, the emerging players generally share U.S. interests in a stable international order. The United States should for this reason embrace the increased participation of other countries, while ensuring that it does not cause it any strategic vulnerability.
No one should confuse these times for 1914. The tectonic plates of world diplomacy are not shifting irrevocably, and economic production is not heading into decades of overall decline. But the way the world has staggered into war bears some eerie reminders of Sarajevo almost a century ago. Previously quiet voices are shouting, unusual partnerships are forming, and all the countries of the world are fundamentally examining their relationships to one another.
Jonathan S. Kallmer
The writer practices international litigation and arbitration at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson.