TCS Daily

Russia ... An Honest Broker?

By Lee Harris - March 13, 2006 12:00 AM

In its recent dealing with Iran and Hamas, Russia has succeeded in achieving a major geopolitical objective. And it has done so with relatively little cost. It has managed to convince many in the Muslim world that it is willing to play the role of "the honest broker" — the role that the wily German Chancellor Otto Bismarck assigned to himself at the Congress of Berlin. For example, representatives of Hamas, on returning from their trip to Moscow, praised the Russian efforts at mediation, and noted that Russia's geographical position made it the ideal party to settle differences between the Islamic world and the West.

In ordinary life, an honest broker is a disinterested party whose even-handedness and sense of fair play allows him to resolve disputes between two or more antagonists. Because he has nothing to gain by taking either side, and is only anxious to play the role of the peace-maker, the honest broker makes the ideal mediator in any conflict. For example, Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for assuming the role of the honest broker in bringing the Russo-Japanese war to an end that was satisfactory to both of the warring parties.

Though honest brokers are appreciated in normal times, during a period of conflict and crisis, they become absolutely invaluable — indeed, they often provide the only ray of hope for bringing interminable disputes to a conclusion. That is why the offer of a third party to play the part of the honest broker is usually applauded by those seeking the peaceful resolution of violent conflict.

So the question arises: Should we in the United States be applauding Russia's efforts at mediation, or should we be worried that behind the façade of an honest broker the Russians are playing a much deeper game — much as Bismarck was playing a deeper game behind his posture?

Consider the case of Hamas. The United States refuses to recognize Hamas and is trying to persuade the rest of the world to follow suit. But if we do not recognize Hamas, then this rules out the possibility that we can act as a mediator between Hamas and Israel. Yet how can the USA appear to Hamas as an honest broker when we declare that we are unwilling to talk to them? Thus, by default, Russia's readiness to invite spokesmen from Hamas to talk things over in Moscow automatically creates the impression that Russia is being impartial and even-handed, whereas America is cast in the role of a party to the conflict, rather than an impartial force standing above it.

The same is true in the case of Iran. Here, once more, Russia waded into the midst of a conflict between Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, and the USA, with its insistence on preventing the Iranians from realizing these ambitions. In respect of Iran, America has no interest in playing the honest broker; we are only interested in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians. Thus we are on one side of the dispute, and Iran is on the other — a situation that permits Russia to appear on the scene as an honest broker, trying to resolve the disputes between the two of us.

What is worrisome about this, from our perspective, is that in a world in which there is increasing polarization between the USA and those who are firmly in the anti-American camp, Russia, if it plays it cards carefully, can emerge as the one major player who is willing to listen to both sides. Yet as those in the anti-American camp come to regard the United States as the enemy, while looking upon Russia as the honest broker, it is inevitable that Russia's prestige and influence will increase dramatically around the world, while America's will suffer accordingly — and this effect will obviously be felt most in those nations in which anti-Americanism has become a mobilizing and unifying ideology.

As hostility grows between America and other parts of the world, America will inevitably lose its ability to play its traditional role as the honest broker, while this same hostility will permit the New Russia to emerge as the mediator and peace-maker — a role that the USSR could never hope to play in the bipolar world of the Cold War, where its motives were always suspect because they were so transparently self-interested. Yet, as the world begins to move back toward geopolitical bipolarity, with America on one side, and the forces of anti-Americanism on the other, Russia has been handed a golden opportunity to stand above this bipolarization, and to play the role of a mediator, assuming the mantle of the honest broker that the USA once wore.

This presents American policy-makers with a grim dilemma. If we insist that Russia cease to play the role of the honest broker, and demand that it toe the line we have set, the effect would not be to win Russia over to our side, since such an outcome would be unlikely, but to enhance Russia's reputation as the honest broker. Its very refusal of our demands would be proof of its independence from us, and this by itself would increase its prestige. But if we permit Russia to continue to play the broker role, the inevitable result will be a geopolitical triumph for Russian policy, since Russia would naturally attract to its sphere of influence all those who feel resentment and enmity towards the U.S. While selling itself as an impartial mediator in conflicts between the USA and others, Russia would be re-establishing its position as a great player on the world stage, and it would be achieving this objective at little cost and at virtually no risk.

Essential to Russia's deep game, however, is the continuation of a show of impartiality towards the USA. At no point can Russia afford to openly declare its intentions, which means that the Russians must put on a convincing act that it is not working against us, but with us — just in its own way. In other words, it cannot, at this point, risk shattering the useful illusion of its "strategic partnership" with the USA.

The question for the United States, however, is whether this particular illusion is still worth preserving, or whether the time has come to acknowledge frankly that we are, once again, competitors for power on the world stage.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and its Enemies.



honest brokers
Are only effective when both parties are interested in a fair settlement.

That can't be said of either Hamas or Iran.

As such, honest brokers are more akin to Neville Chamberline.

Probably seems more an honest broker than the U.S.
If impartiality, equity and reality are important to being considered as an 'honest broker', the U.S. has long forfeited its credentials for the role.

Britain, the U.N. and, finally and most significantly, the U.S., aside from the Zionist movement itself, have created the mess. Of all, the U.N. has attempted the most 'honest', albeit rendered impotent by the U.S., assessments of what has taken place since the Partition.

At this point in time it seems that 'honest brokering' is nearly impossible - Israel and the U.S. are too strong and have gone too far for brokerage - honest or otherwise. However, for the long term, Russia may well see the handwriting on the far distant wall: America, however strong, has been wrong. Being wrong is a weakness that is bound to lead, however eventually, to a failure. It may well be that the invasion of Iraq and the emerging chaos in the region is seen by Russia as the beginning of an opportunity to broaden the distance between the U.S. and the rest of the world by simply being, or appearing to be, even-handed and reasonable.

U.S. policy, particularly since 1967, towards Israel and the Palestinians is a blight on this nation's history and is, eventually, bound to be evaluated as such by the rest of the world. The only way for the U.S. to make the best of that is to convince Israel that it should actually become a democratic state. That it should renounce Zionism, finally draft and adopt a constitution that acknowledges and guarantees the individual rights and liberties of all individuals regardless of religion or ethnicity and, then, proceed to evolve from the sham of faux democracy it has constructed by use of force to a robust, modern, secular democratic state. Would that change the nature of Israel from a 'Jewish state'? Absolutely. Zionist elitism behind a cement wall is not a robust model and bodes no future of long term value. Israel has become the mirror image of the anti-semitic pogroms and ghettos European Jews experienced. While anti-Zionism is more an expression of distaste for elitist, oppressive colonialism, because it is carried out in the name of Judaism, it has become the most prominent source of anti-Jewish (what the ADL would incorrectly call anti-semitic) sentiment.

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