Flurry of diplomatic action with limited results reveal restraints leaders face in some geopolitical chess matches.
The latest flurry of diplomacy and pressure to rein in Iran, North Korea and Syria -- countries that have repeatedly challenged global norms over the last three decades -- underscores that there are limited alternatives to the age-old problem of rogue nations.
For a decade, the world's attention has been drawn to what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "new actors" on the international stage. This week, world leaders have been preoccupied by a problem as old as geopolitics: bad actors.
The United States and its allies failed to dissuade North Korea from testing a long-range rocket, and are struggling to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and Syria from killing its own people to quell dissent.
"It's really hard to address these issues decisively when you've only got diplomatic and economic tools, particularly when the nuclear card is in play," said Anne- Marie Slaughter, Clinton's former policy planning chief who is now a Princeton professor. "You're applying a lot of pressure to an entity that, in the end, is able to hunker down and say no. If you're not going to address it militarily, what else can you do?"
Slaughter and other supporters of the administration's foreign policy give President Obama credit for building multilateral coalitions to pressure Iran, North Korea and Syria through negotiations and sanctions, rather than taking unilateral military action.
"The U.S. is no longer accepted as the policeman of the world, and to try to be one is counterproductive," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Multinational pressure on rogue states is essential, he said, even if getting to a solution that way may be gradual, painful and slow. "Without large-scale international consensus, efforts by the United States are going to make things worse," he said.
This week's trio of crises are a "stark reminder that some traditional threats remain," said Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We're still half in Machiavelli's world, but half in the world" of dangerous hackers, terrorists and melting icecaps.
Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said the last decade also demonstrated the flaws in some strategies promoted to address emerging crises. "From 2007 till 2011 we had a fixation with counterinsurgency strategy, when it was quite clear it delivered mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
With Iran, North Korea and Syria this week, the attention is on "traditional chessboard geopolitics: they move, we move, and what do we have that can try to force them to change their behavior," Slaughter said. "Kissinger's world is still there."