DENVER -- I’ve just left an interesting discussion convened by the New America Foundation dedicated to national security--the theme, of course, of today’s Democratic convention messaging. The question at hand: “Can the next President make the Middle East irrelevant?” Good one. John Kerry spoke early on, and was again, in fine stride when discussing global conflicts that will face the next administration. (See Jason’s excellent profile for more details of the resurgent, brawling persona he’s adopted since 2004). TNR contributor Anne-Marie Slaughter of the Woodrow Wilson School and the Princeton Project on National Security has also given a vigorous argument for “rediscovering international law,” a project designed to--as Barack Obama is fond of saying--“improve America’s standing in the world.” Though the idea gets vigorous applause on the stump, Slaughter and others are finally putting flesh on its bones.

She begins by appreciating the climate of suspicion that greets American geopolicy in 2008, indicting the “new rules of the game” that the Bush administration projected after 9/11.  Why, other nations are asking, is Russia’s invasion of Georgia different from our invasion of Iraq without UN sanction? Another good one. Slaughter says, rightly, that “there are differences,” but notes that as a first principle, the US ought to move toward not uninterested, but disinterested (as Gordon Wood would have it) self-regard. Slaughter then lists targets for the new new rules of the game, focusing on three major issues: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, human rights, and “nonviolent dispute resolution”--the former two about walking the proverbial walk, and the latter, fancy talk for when to go to war. Slaughter makes clear that “the US is not going to announce that we will not use force unless the UN agrees,” but says it's crucial to think about institutions as another first principle when trying to govern the world.

With a mixture of incredulousness and flat reason, Slaughter calls for more work toward “a set of norms” that can help navigate internecine and international flash points, particularly in the Middle East. “The Middle East is the least institutionalized region in the world,” she declares. Just as a matter of comparison, note that African regional blocs, from ECOWAS to NEPAS to the SADC or the AU, are extant, if weak. The Middle East, on the other hand, boasts the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, but by every measure lags behind, with no comprehensive body involving “all” the regional interests, and no way to isolate individual states or to collectively negotiate. Other developmental difficulties aside, this is an area of backwardness that nations like the US cannot afford to leave unaddressed.

Another asymmetrical point Slaughter makes (via Richard Danzig) is that "India used to be the Middle East," (when we still had an Orient); now what we call the Middle east is the Near East—though “India is still there,” she remarks wryly. The upside: The architecture of the Eurasian continent is uniquely suited to a future geopolitical harmony. “The way I look at the region,” says Slaughter, “you have an unstable region between two stable groups of democracies; there’s the EU on the one side and India on the other. Both [countries] have a huge role to play in stabilizing and strengthening the region.” She praises Nicolas Sarkozy’s work for a Mediterranean Union, calling it a project of “tremendous potential” that could pave the way for more stable networks of governing officials, connecting them, allowing them to share best practices and when necessary asserting pressures on member states. And India of course, is a bustling democracy with a huge professional class that is dispersed throughout the region, and can certainly exert influence on the subcontinent. That seems a bit farfetched--as India’s first, second and third foreign policy priorities have to do with Pakistan--but the nuclear power could certainly be an effective partner. I think here, the six-party talks in east Asia are an instructive precedent.

Finally, Slaughter broached a fascinating bit of disagreement with Kerry, who mentioned Turkey’s work in brokering relations between Syria and Israel. Kerry had asked, somewhat indignantly, “Where’s the US?” With respect to Kerry, Slaughter said essentially that it doesn’t always have to be about the United States. “It’s called strategic leadership,” she notes. “Letting other countries take the lead when it’s in their regional interest to do so.” When questioned later, she reiterated that Americans “absolutely have to support” such initiative-taking--but do not need to be the last line of defense, in the Middle East or elsewhere. That, I suppose is one definition of “irrelevant.”

--Dayo Olopade