There is no way to predict whether the coming talks announced this week on Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war will resolve either situation peacefully. But the Obama administration's success in driving these crises to the negotiating table is a victory for diplomacy and a lesson in recasting American power in the post-9/11 world.
The United States and five major world powers agreed to an interim deal with Iran that freezes Tehran's nuclear program for six months as the two sides explore a more durable deal on controlling Iran's nuclear ambitions. While the prospects for a comprehensive deal are far from certain, the interim pact at least forestalls the crisis, clipping the security threat Iran poses its neighbors and shelving for now any Western military response aimed at keeping Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
The announcement that Syria's government and the opposition will hold their first talks on ending the three-year-old civil war brought new hopes for diplomacy. The meetings beginning in Geneva in January could still collapse over a host of political and practical questions, from what role Syrian President Bashar Assad will play in the future to the nagging infighting that prevents Syrian rebels from presenting a viable, united front.
Still, neither breakthrough occurred overnight. That speaks to the sustained effort by the Obama administration in reaching out to the international community. The talks with Iran represent the biggest break in decades between two hardened foes. Whatever course the Syria talks take, bringing the warring sides together at least amounts to a thawing in relations between the United States and Russia, the principal actors behind the scenes whose cooperation is vital for ending the civil war. The Obama administration also helped restart peace talks this summer between Israel and the Palestinians after a three-year deadlock, putting that issue back on the international radar.
This diplomatic surge, coming after more than a decade of war that produced mixed results, better serves America's security interests. While President Barack Obama acknowledged Monday in San Francisco that "tough talk and bluster" was easy politically, the hard slog of diplomacy is the only way to reduce this nation's role as the world's policeman. In recent months, France, Russia, the West's Arab allies and the United Nations have all stepped forward to fill the void Washington historically has played in flash points around the world. That limits the nation's human and financial burden, and it frees the United States to turn its attention to other global priorities, from containing China to addressing inequality across the Western hemisphere.
Diplomacy is essential in an era when global terror networks pose a continual threat to even established governments. And as the rocky transition toward self-reliance in Afghanistan shows, the lengthy deployment of the American military does not always translate into appreciation or sustainable security gains. Obama should keep engaging others with a stake in global order to step forward. It is through these alliances that the administration will realize the full effect of American leadership.