Numerology is the hidden flaw of American diplomacy

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Readouts from the telephone call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin late last week make it clear that little was achieved in the discussion.

A path forward to the negotiations that Washington and Moscow will launch in Geneva on January 10, with the purpose of resolving the crisis on Ukraine’s border with Russia, is hard to discern. What the Kremlin wants from those talks is legally based guarantees of Russian security for its closest sphere of influence, as the anti-Soviet Nato security alliance expands eastwards. How that can happen is occupying the brightest diplomatic minds as the lead-up to the talks unfolds in the week ahead.

Hotline calls remain the cogs and pistons of international relations despite all the changes in the world since the 1950s heyday of superpower diplomacy. For quick guide on how to gauge what is really happening, it would be useful to look not at the substance but the formatting of these engagements.

Numerology has become more and more key to international diplomacy. There are the meetings and discussions in twos that form the most tense, and terse, encounters in the international arena.

Mr Biden’s four encounters with Mr Putin in 2021 gained a successively harder edge on each occasion. The Russian leader has made it clear that he is interested only in dealing with the US. His mission is a rewriting of the post-Cold War outcome in ways that removes some of the most difficult encroachments stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Another forum of two is Mr Biden’s discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Here again, there is a definitive preference from Mr Xi to reduce the discussion to the hard tacks of one-on-one.

The ultimate outcome again is clearly to avoid future conflict. The terms by which this is achieved are not yet clear, as the framework must be built in real time. The two leaders at the table are there to works as architects of this new infrastructure.

Sets of two do not have to be about confrontation. When Italy and France signed a treaty in November, it was a statement of intent to co-ordinate on a common front, within the EU, as partners.

To move to the next level, we can see groupings of three emerge in response to the tense international equilibrium.

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When Australia, the UK and the US formed the “Aukus” alliance this year, something truly significant emerged. Based on a need to share nuclear technology that will stretch across a range of Australian naval operations, the deal is actually a new defence dynamic.

It provides a military caucus within the long-standing “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangement when there are stress lines within the overall group. The Five Eyes arrangement covers Aukus states, plus Canada and New Zealand.

The determinedly nuclear-free New Zealand could not join Aukus even if that mattered. Canada is hobbled by minority governments and has stayed on the sidelines. The other three nations can still move ahead in what is a cohesive formation that can legitimately draw not only on a shared heritage but close alignment on international threats.

Moving up to the quadrilaterals – or groups of four – these are the most numerous in the international setting. In fact, if there is a collective, it should be the curse of quads.

The best-followed quadrilateral format comprises the meetings between Australia, India, Japan and the US. Although India is a proud pillar of the Cold War-era “Non-Aligned Movement”, and by definition not aligned to any one particular grouping or superpower, it has nonetheless provided an enthusiastic voice to this arrangement.

Another significant quad is the Visegrad Four, which includes Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and which acts as a caucus within the EU and a brake on western European domination of the bloc.

The UK’s exit from the EU has led to some shift in how the transatlantic is transacted.

A note from the US Department of State this week gave an update on the latest gang of four that is consulting increasingly often on urgent issues. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the British, French and German foreign ministers. The group discussed the crisis on the Russia-Ukraine border, shared concerns about developments in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, Libya’s ongoing efforts to organise national elections and the diplomatic row between China and Lithuania.

At other times, this grouping is expanded to a quint, with Italy making up the fifth member.

The Iran nuclear talks in Vienna have not made as much progress as diplomats would like. The 2015 nuclear agreement was pulled together by a six-nation grouping latterly known as the E3+3 (three European countries, including France, Germany and the UK, plus China, Russia and the US). The US left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, although talks in the Austrian capital are about bringing Washington back.

And even though efforts at the group of six levels are continuing, the UK’s exit from the EU in 2019 has resulted in these nations having more or less shed their previous operating entity.

By pulling groups together, the US has undoubtedly expanded heft to conduct its diplomacy. There is no space for error in one-on-one talks. But the big question must remain how effective is the work in the outer circles. It’s the curse of the quad indeed.

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