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Examining Britain's Position On The Crisis In Syria


When President Obama chose diplomacy over military action in Syria, some feared that could actually bolster Assad. We posed that question earlier this morning to Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who led his country's delegation to the U. N. General Assembly. Clegg told us the threat of military strikes forced Assad's hand, and he said Britain and the U.S. will work to threaten military consequences in a U.N. resolution, even if the Russians are pressing hard against that.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER NICK CLEGG: My own view is that I don't think we would have got to the stage we are at now if there hadn't been the material threat of the use of force. So I do think you do need a hard edge to these things. Otherwise, things tend to drift, and people don't live up to the commitments they've made.

GREENE: And this led to a broader discussion with Nick Clegg about the position of countries like Britain and the U.S. in the world today.

There's a pretty amazing picture on the cover of this week's Economist magazine, this wistful-looking bandaged-up lion peering over a map at Syria, that the lion's fangs are floating in the glass that's supposed to look like dentures. And the cover reads: The Weakened West. What's your reaction to that?

CLEGG: I don't accept that. I don't think recent history suggests that the West is somehow toothless. We took international military action in Libya just very recently. But I think it's also worth reflecting that the reasons, for instance, in the United Kingdom why we ruled ourselves out of any possible military intervention, was because of democracy working. And you can't be, if you like, muscular in promoting your democratic values abroad if you don't live by those principles at home.

And, whilst yes, you know, parliaments, congresses sometimes do things that the executive and the government of the day doesn't want - that's democracy. And actually I think what would weaken the West much more considerably in the long run is if we started somehow abandoning the democratic principles which we espouse elsewhere in the world.

GREENE: You're saying that if the West is not weakened, we've at least reached a point where people in Britain, people in the United States, are not as supportive as they perhaps used to be, in terms of taking military action and, sort of, trying to intervene in countries abroad.

CLEGG: Well, it's clear that what happened 10 years ago in Iraq, that has certainly cast a very long shadow in the way that people feel about these things. And I totally, totally understand that. I totally understand the basic reflex of people which say, oh do we really need to get entangled in another intractable conflict in a distant land; we're not going to sort this out. And I completely recognize that and respect that. I think the issue that I would come back to is, having said all of that and understanding that caution, there is still this issue of a use of chemical weapons on a scale not seen for a very, very long period of time. So you have to balance the natural caution - which I entirely understand - against the precedent we would have set if we would have, in a sense, not lifted a finger to react to this terrible war crime happening on our watch.

GREENE: But if we accept this notion that people who live in Great Britain, people who live in the United States, are not as excited about their countries going to war and getting involved militarily in other places in the world, does that not send a message to, for example, the Syrian opposition and other groups like the Syrian opposition around the world, that countries like the United States and Britain aren't going to be coming to their rescue, or aren't as likely to as they were in the past?

CLEGG: Well, I would actually say that a certain degree of skepticism, being thoughtful and wary about taking military action is a perfectly healthy thing in a democracy. You don't want to just be trigger-happy; that has disastrous results itself. I don't think we should ever take military action lightly. So the fact that people ask questions, are skeptical, are cautious, is a totally natural thing, given what you're doing is talking about the deployment of force, and a military force. Having said all of that, I just don't buy this idea that these events mean that suddenly the West has become toothless. And I think recent experience, not least in Libya, suggests otherwise.

GREENE: Nick Clegg, let me just ask you about Iran for a moment. The Israelis, for example, very, very skeptical of following any diplomatic option for Iran. I mean anything right now that you see - whether it's Hasan Rouhani as new president or something else - that makes you see the window more open right now for diplomacy than a year ago?

CLEGG: Well, I certainly don't think it would be right for us to sort of just ignore that President Rouhani is striking a very different tone, appears to be reaching out. Of course, one needs to be - one always needs to be cautious. One speech, one change of tone doesn't change everything. But I think we would be unwise not to explore seriously what Iranian intentions are.

In a sense however, the ball quickly then returns to the Iranian court and they have to show that they are prepared to follow up words with actions. And that's what the next step of the diplomatic process is all going to be about.

GREENE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

CLEGG: Thank you.

GREENE: Nick Clegg is the deputy British prime minister and he is leading his country's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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