The efforts of Brazil and Turkey to find a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which generated a negotiated agreement with Iran last week, must be seen in the context of a growing challenge to the international political order.
That political order has been dominated by the United States, with Europe as a subordinate partner, since the end of World War II. The replacement of the G-7 (or G-8) with the G-20 is an important but largely symbolic change. The levers of power - for example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are still controlled much as when they were when created in 1944 - by the U.S. Treasury Department, with some input from European powers. Similarly, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who hold a veto over the most important UN decisions, are the victorious allies from World War II, plus China.
Even the World Trade Organization, which was formed in 1994-95, and has a consensus process that does not cede formal control to Washington or the rich countries, is already out of date. The organization's rules are so heavily stacked against developing countries that they would never have been approved by the member countries if the ratification were to take place today.
After a brief period of engagement, the Obama administration has reverted to the foreign policy of the Bush administration with respect to Iran - as it has also done with Latin America. This is a policy of threats and increased sanctions against Iran, which greatly increases the risk of military confrontation. For example, the sanctions against Iran that Washington is now seeking in the Security Council would authorize countries to stop and search Iranian ships if they are suspected to be carrying banned materials. This would not only ratchet up tensions but could lead to military confrontation.
By contrast, Brazil and Turkey have continued along Washington's prior, brief path of diplomacy, and reached an agreement that is similar to one supported/proposed by the United States last October. In this arrangement, Iran would ship 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. After a year, Iran would get 120 kilograms of uranium for its medical research reactor.
According to the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists, the differences between Brazil/Turkey agreement and the October deal are small. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has been dismissive of the agreement and is moving ahead with its plan to increase sanctions against Iran. By contrast, on Friday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped that the agreement "may open the door to a negotiated settlement."
By taking leadership on this issue, Brazil and Turkey have already won an important victory. They have shown the world that progress can be made on this issue through dialogue and negotiation. They have therefore slowed the march to military conflict.
Of course, as we say in Washington, no good deed goes unpunished. The Western media, including most major media outlets in Latin America, tend to report on international relations from the perspective of the United States. Since Washington has demonized Iran, the Western media presents an exaggerated and one-sided picture of the country, as a threat to the world. And within most countries - almost monolithically in Europe, but elsewhere to varying degrees - there is a faction of the elite that favors the United States' hegemonic order against the emergence of a multi-polar world. Their views tend to dominate the media.
Those who support a more multi-polar world are accused of being "anti-American." The pro-Washington elites play on people's fears that such a world will simply create another, perhaps worse empire; or greater instability in international relations. But the opposite is true. Over the past decade, Latin America has become vastly more independent of the United States than it has ever been - and its people, especially the poor and the majority, have clearly benefited. And as the Brazil/Turkey diplomacy shows, a multi-polar world will help reduce the risk of war.
It is like moving from dictatorship to democracy. Just as representative democracy, as it exists today, does not give all citizens an equal voice, neither will a multi-polar world. But democracy is still a big improvement over dictatorship. And in the international arena it is opening the door to a larger role for the rule of law, for diplomacy - instead of threats and violence that violate the UN Charter - and for greater social and economic progress.
This column was published by Fohla de São Paulo on May 25, 2010.