Which foreign policy for Lebanon in a volatile environment?
The election of Michel Aoun as Lebanon’s president came after almost two-and-a-half years of dangerous and threatening paralysis. It was considered by some as a Lebanese-brokered understanding independent of external patrons. It was, in reality, allowed — though passively — by the external patrons who gave a green light to that end to their respective allies.
This occurred in response to international pressure and the looming threat of a costly situation for everybody if the stalemate had continued — a situation that could have led to the collapse of the state and to the disintegration of society.
The looming economic crisis was a major instigator to break out of the stalemate that threatened the country and everybody’s interest. The election came as a truce amid regional tensions and wars and reflected a wait-and-see attitude because Lebanon was inching closer to becoming a failed state with all that that encompasses.
This fear and the international pressure overcame the escalating Saudi-Iranian cold war and the intensifying war by proxies among the two regional powers.
Aoun promised an independent foreign policy to steer Lebanon away from the highly polarised and rapidly escalating bipolar confrontation stretching from Yemen to Lebanon.
What is needed in terms of foreign policy is to avoid becoming hostage to the regional war that could have a devastating effect on the country.
First, Aoun should take the initiative to install a small working group with people representing the two contending factions as well as neutral personalities to work out proposals for confidence-building measures to contain and neutralise the potential fallout of the cold war confrontation on Lebanon.
This includes — first and foremost — the necessity to stop the political and media sniping by the conflicting factions — on the respective regional friend of the “other” — meaning Iran and Saudi Arabia. This will be an important test for the factions to demonstrate their credibility of wanting to shield Lebanon from the devastating effect of the cold war. This will help in de-escalation and clash avoidance at home and from the concerned powers.
Second, to entrust the working group to develop proposals for a diplomatic discourse to encourage, support and engage in any international efforts to launch a Saudi-Iranian dialogue. Such a dialogue is a sine qua non condition to achieve an understanding between the two regional powers on ongoing conflicts and save Lebanon from turning into a theatre of confrontation; an extension of the Syrian one.
Third, it is of utmost importance to engage in a larger inclusive national dialogue to elaborate the basic tenets of a much-needed national consensus to liberate foreign policy from remaining hostage to regional politics.
Small countries need a proactive foreign policy to make them present with dynamism and with weight in regional and international forums. Such an active presence on different issues and the engagement at trying to settle differences and conflicts particularly at the regional level provide the country with a security net at both regional and international levels because of its engaged and constructive role. It will be a main source of soft power for the concerned country.
Lebanon has a keen interest in engaging within any collective initiative aiming at establishing a regional order based on the respect of the normal code of conduct (respect of sovereignty and of other regimes, non-interference in others’ affairs, the management of differences by peaceful means) in the relations among countries that allow for restoring stability in the region.
Fourth, Lebanon has a keen interest to engage in any collective effort to establish a conference on security and cooperation in the Middle East that includes the Arab countries and neighbouring Islamic countries, mainly Turkey and Iran.
Such a conference, like the Helsinki process turning into the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), does not substitute for existing regional organisations. Indeed, it facilitates the functioning of such organisations. It will act as a forum to pre-empt and prevent crises, to manage and settle them once possible or to contain a crisis so as not to have any spillover effect.
Fifth, the proactive role as a third party, particularly initiating mediations to settle differences or contain them and to be active internationally in working for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a must. Lebanon pays a heavy price if the tense stalemate persists and the Palestinian people remain deprived of their basic national rights of statehood. Engaging in such a proactive foreign policy provides the country with much needed wider support that consolidates its security as well as its stability and allows for its prosperity.
History provides many examples of such roles in the world. It is not an easy road but Lebanon needs to take it.