Leaders in Washington claim that the threat of military force was necessary to achieve the agreement with Russia on securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. If the lesson drawn from this is that military threats work, the obvious conclusion is to use more of the same—which is why some in Washington are calling for a Security Council resolution that includes a threat to use force.
There is no doubt that Obama’s threat to bomb Syria gave urgency to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, but this does not mean that military threats were necessary in this case or are the best way to reach diplomatic agreement or achieve disarmament. Discussions with Russia on a joint plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons began more than a year ago. A deal could have been reached months earlier if interest in a negotiated solution had been greater.
According to a report in USA Today, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin first discussed the idea of a diplomatic plan to secure Syria’s chemical weapons in June 2012 while attending the economic summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov followed up on the idea during meetings in Moscow this spring and again in Washington in early August. Diplomacy might have worked without the threat of force if Washington had taken advantage of the opportunity to work with Moscow.
Many U.S. officials believe that military threats are necessary generally for the success of diplomacy, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, two major studies on the subject show that threat-based diplomacy works only about 30 per cent of the time.
The United Nations has an impressive record of achieving diplomatic agreement in many cases over the decades without threatening the use of force. Most examples of successful disarmament have occurred without military threats.