Britain's Humiliation -- and Europe's
Iran has pulled off a tidy little success with its seizure and release of those 15 British sailors and marines: a pointed humiliation of Britain, with a bonus demonstration of Iran's intention to push back against coalition challenges to its assets in Iraq. All with total impunity. Further, it exposed the impotence of all those transnational institutions -- most prominently the European Union and the United Nations -- that pretend to maintain international order.
You would think maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation.
The quid pro quos were not terribly subtle. An Iranian "diplomat" who had been held for two months in Iraq is suddenly released. Equally suddenly, Iran is granted access to the five Iranian "consular officials" -- Revolutionary Guards who had been training Shiite militias to kill Americans and others -- whom the United States had arrested in Irbil in January. There may have been other concessions we will never hear about. But the salient point is that American action is what got this unstuck.
Where then was the European Union? These 15 hostages, after all, are not just British citizens but, under the laws of Europe, citizens of Europe. Yet the European Union lifted not a finger on their behalf.
Europeans talk all the time about their preference for "soft power" over the brute military force those Neanderthal Americans resort to all the time. What was the soft power available here? Iran's shaky economy is highly dependent on European credits, trade and technology. Britain asked the European Union to threaten to freeze exports, $18 billion a year of commerce. Iran would have lost its No. 1 trading partner. The European Union refused.
Why was nothing done? The reason is simple. Europe functions quite well as a free-trade zone, but as a political entity it is a farce. It remains a collection of sovereign countries with divergent interests. A freeze of economic relations with Europe would have shaken the Iranian economy to the core. "The Dutch," reported the Times of London, "said it was important not to risk a breakdown in dialogue." So much for European solidarity.
Like other vaunted transnational institutions, the European Union is useless as a player in the international arena. Not because its members are venal but because they are sovereign. Their interests are simply not identical.
The problem is most striking at the United Nations, the quintessential transnational institution with a mandate to maintain international peace and order. There was a commonality of interest at its origin -- defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The war ended, but the wartime alliance of Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia proclaimed itself the guardian of postwar "collective security" as the Security Council.
Small problem: Their interests are not collective. They are individual. Take the Iranian nuclear program. Russia and China make it impossible to impose any serious sanctions. China has an interest in maintaining strong relations with a major energy supplier and is not about to jeopardize that over Iranian nukes that are no threat to it whatsoever. Russia sees Iran as a useful proxy in resisting Western attempts to dominate the Persian Gulf.
Ironically, the existence of transnational institutions such as the United Nations makes it harder for collective action against bad actors. In the past, interested parties would simply get together in temporary coalitions to do what they had to do. That is much harder now because they believe such action is illegitimate without the Security Council's blessing. The result is utterly predictable. Nothing has been done about the Iranian bomb. In fact, the only effective sanctions are those coming unilaterally out of the U.S. Treasury.
Remember the great return to multilateralism -- the new emphasis on diplomacy and "working with the allies" -- so widely heralded at the beginning of the second Bush administration? To general acclaim, the cowboys had been banished and the grown-ups brought back to town.
What exactly has the new multilateralism brought us? North Korea tested a nuclear device. Iran has accelerated its march to developing the bomb. The pro-Western government in Beirut hangs by a thread. The Darfur genocide continues unabated.
The capture and release of the British hostages illustrate once again the fatuousness of the "international community" and its great institutions. You want your people back? Go to the European Union and get stiffed. Go to the Security Council and get a statement that refuses even to "deplore" this act of piracy. (You settle for a humiliating expression of "grave concern.") Then turn to the despised Americans. They'll deal some cards and bail you out.