World in 'strategic anarchy' as Syria conflict drags on

Weakened leaders are thinking tactically, not strategically - IISS
Weakened leaders are thinking tactically, not strategically - IISS
Alex Stevenson By

World leaders' retreat towards living 'tactically' has left global politics facing "a state of sublimated strategic anarchy", a think-tank has warned.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies' annual review of world affairs blamed "a failure of leadership and a reluctance to pursue grander designs" for fostering a preference for "quick fixes".

Dr John Chipman, the IISS' director-general, told an audience in central London the planet had experienced a "modesty of strategic ambition" in the last 12 months which had limited the development of sustainable foreign policies.

"It may be that if more leaders were certain of their domestic strength, then genuine strategic action could be a more regular feature of international affairs," he suggested.


"Perhaps another year of living tactically will be better than a year of strategic conceits. But... as each problem receives a tactical answer, the difficulty of building and sustaining a strategic approach compounds, leaving few satisfied."

The IISS' Strategic Survey 2013 noted the weak domestic positions of world leaders including Britain, which it criticised for suffering a "chronic ambivalence" over its relationship with the European Union.

It expressed particular concern over the fading ability of democratic states to act decisively over deterrence because of the need to resort to parliamentary consent - a move which effectively ended Britain's potential participation in military action against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Chipman told Politics.co.uk western states needed to work harder to persuade voters of the need to act to uphold international norms on chemical weapons.

In previous instances governments were able to act without asking permission from their parliaments.

"That was against the basis of a very strong public consensus that had been strategically debated for decades, and on which the executive branch could easily rely on exercising its prerogative," Chipman said.

"That is simply not the case of chemical weapons use. There has not been the same sense of public discussion and sense of comfort in giving the executive branch its prerogative... that strategic debate will have to be engaged with publicly in a more deep and considered way."

Most believe US president Barack Obama's enthusiasm for the Russian proposal on destroying Syria's chemical weapons was in part motivated by a fear he could not persuade Congress of the need to act.

But Steven Simon of the IISS said future presidents might not be restricted in the same way.

"I don't see this as setting some kind of precedent - let alone an abiding precedent for future presidents, in part because every one of these contingencies is just a little bit different," he said.

"They're just different enough to make preceding experience not really terribly relevant."

Meanwhile commentators in Britain have noted the Syria defeat means the UK parliament has decisively claimed a veto power over military involvement.

Robert Rogers, the Commons' senior official who presides over business in the House, told Politics.co.uk: "I think it would be very difficult for any future government to feel confident about going into pre-meditated military action without the political support of the House of Commons.

"There was an emblematic element of it [the vote] which I think political parties will find it very hard to ignore."

He said it was significant that Barack Obama's preparations for taking the issue to Congress began to be discussed in American media hours after the result of the vote - suggesting that the move was "resonant" across the world.

"It's a cultural shift," Rogers added.

"Whatever the members of a future House, their constituents will have an expectation... that this is a rather good thing, because the people representing them directly are contributing to the decision."

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