'I am no longer surprised by how cynical university students generally are about American motives. America, no matter who the President, what the circumstances, will act like a bully, is their collective belief, says Ambassador B S Prakash after a recent interaction with university students.
'Because it is in the nature of America to go to war,' declared my student confidently.
This was in response to my question about why President Obama had said initially, some weeks ago, that the US will punish Syria for having used chemical weapons.
With a handsome face, bright burning eyes, and trimmed beard he looked like Che Guevara and I had mentally dubbed him 'Che without the beret'.
I was interacting with university students in a class on international relations that I teach. I am no longer surprised by how cynical they generally are about American motives.
America, no matter who the President, what the circumstances, will act like a bully, is their collective belief. The legacy of American behaviour for decades, perhaps.
It is, however, my objective in the class to try to show them that national decisions can result from several motives, not all of them rational, and that international incidents can have multiple causes.
"Had Obama been the President during 9/11 instead of Bush, would he have attacked Saddam?" was my earlier query. Most students seemed to believe that Obama would have -- because of oil, the American military-industrial complex (a favourite talking point), the Israeli lobby, vendetta against Saddam.
Interesting perspectives. "Definitely, because of American hegemonism," said Che. I was less sure. Being perhaps simple minded, I have been trying to tell them that individuals too matter in history, but my students normally believe in deep and hidden structures.
We then turned to Syria and things got a little complicated.
The Syrian conflict is no doubt bloody enough on the ground with a determined army under Assad confronting a variety of rebel militants with diverse motives.
But at another level, what is unfolding can also be analysed as a clash of different ideas by academics in international relations (or what is known as IR in universities). Syria is already emerging as a good case study in that discipline.
The dominant theory in IR about why nations act as they do externally is that they act to advance their national interests. This is the 'realist school' based on the belief that the international order is ultimately anarchic, a free for all, and that therefore maximising its power and security is the underlying principle for all nations.
The policy and postures of statesmen may be couched in high principles or moral rhetoric, but behind it is the raw calculation of self-interest, according to realists.
Seen in this framework, it is natural for Assad of Syria to cling on to his power and to try to crush his enemies; for a country like Russia to support its traditional client; for the West (the US, the UK, France) to support Assad's ouster by the rebels, since Assad is supported by Iran -- whose spreading influence they do not like -- and in addition he is seen as a tyrant -- and they have believed that it is in their interest to remove dictators.
To add to the mix, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states also support the rebels because Assad represents a non-Sunni minority sect and in a sectarian sense is anathema to them apart from being close to Iran. The above is a crude summary of the clash of interests at work that has kept the conflict going.
On top of it, my students, most of them, believed that it is in the nature of the US to bomb and punish, damn the theory.
But as the events unfolded they had to concede that the US under Obama was acting extremely cautiously in its approach to Syria. America was being egged on by the UK, its traditional partner in intervention, also by Israel, and close allies like Saudi Arabia. But Obama was still being a reluctant interventionist.
This too can be explained under the 'realist' framework. With the unhappy experience of Iraq and Afghanistan behind him, Obama has become wary of another involvement especially since the core interests of the US were not directly threatened.
Hence the continued ambivalence of the US till the use of chemical weapons in August. It was not in the US interests to go to war and do badly, and that is the real explanation, felt my students.
"But what made Obama change his mind and become a virtual war monger? After all, the use of chemical weapons, horrific as it was, did not directly affect American interests? So what was the imperative?" This was my next question.
Here, the notion that all foreign policy formulation is based on advancement of national interests alone seems to take a knock. The consequences of US punitive action were unpredictable.
On the ground there were also real fears about the nature of the rebel groups if Assad were to go, since many elements in that explosive mix are Al Qaeda affiliates or other forms of extremists. Bombing Syria was thus arguably not in the interests of the US, but was nevertheless being seriously contemplated.
This is best explained in terms of violation of international norms and not US interests as such, I suggested to my class. Using chemical weapons apart from being a horrific act, defies a long standing and internationally sacrosanct red line.
Being indifferent to use of such weapons dented the credibility of a system, I said, and pointed out that such a perspective can be termed as liberalism rather than straightforward realism.
However, my class knew that the whole issue had got defused by the agreement between the US and Russia about Assad giving up his chemical weapons under a UN organised arrangement. This turn of events validates those who believe that nations can also sometimes act in a spirit of cooperation and work with institutions, and that narrowly defined self-interest is not the only motivator, I explained.
The talks between the US and Russia were advantageous to both sides, for the US to avoid the military action that they were doubtful about, for Russia to help Assad, and it had created a diplomatic opening to address the imbroglio.
The subsequent development of a UN Security Council resolution in the last days of September had succeeded for the time being in laying down a road map for further action. 'Ideas and institutions are also important sometimes,' I said, trying to introduce another perspective in international relations. Some students were beginning to look as if they appreciated all this complexity.
"Why have the US and Iran agreed to talk after all these years?" I started as my introductory remarks to the theory that categories like 'enemies' are constructed in the mind and may not be intrinsic or permanent between nations. The relatively new theory in IR called constructivism looks at how ideas are formed and mutate.
"Because the US wants to destroy Iran," said Che without the beret.
Ambassador B S Prakash retired from the Indian Foreign Service recently. He is currently a visiting Professor at the Jamia Milia central university in Delhi.
Image: A Free Syrian Army fighter on a pick-up truck mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon in Aleppo. Photograph: Malek Alshemali/Reuters.