Just when breakthroughs in resolving the most pressing international crises appeared possible if not imminent, the roof fell in.
Syria's chemical weapons were being dismantled and destroyed. While the initial nuclear deal signed by Permanent Five Plus One, the European Union and Iran offered at least the promise of curtailing Tehran's ambitions it was a major step forward. Then boom!
Ukraine, pressured by Moscow and despite strong majority domestic opposition, turned East, not West, eschewing the opportunity to draw closer to the European Union and the Eastern Partnership.
China established a large air defense identification zone over international waters in the East China Sea upping the ante in the long-standing Sino-Japanese rivalry over the sovereignty of the tiny Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. Responding to the severity of the moment, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Tokyo and Beijing as a mediator to ease the tensions.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement immunizing U.S. and allied troops from Afghan law is an absolute deal breaker if foreign forces are to remain in that country after the 2014 withdrawal date giving rise to the "zero option" in which not a single solider would stay behind.
Violence in Iraq continues to spike.
Fierce Saudi and Israeli resistance against the Iran nuclear agreement was enflamed by specious rumors about Pakistani nuclear weapons built with Saudi money in case Tehran does develop a bomb. The more preposterous rumor that Israel could transfer nuclear weapons to Saudi hands fortunately hasn't materialized.
And Egypt appears to be facing a major insurgency in the Sinai.
Drawing lessons from these opposite if not equal reactions is premature. However, a few observations are relevant. From a U.S. and Western perspective, traditional state-versus-state conflicts and tensions cannot be ignored, dismissed or overshadowed by the dangers of failed and failing states and religiously driven acts of terror by non-state actors such as al-Qaida or one of its affiliates, and individuals.
Second, institutions such as the United Nations and NATO are impotent in dealing with many crises and in this case, the Sino-Japanese confrontation or convincing Karzai that without foreign support and assistance, Afghanistan won't survive for long as a coherent state.
Third, multi-crises exceed the capability of any government, let alone the United States', to deal concurrently and effectively with each of them. U.S. foreign policy seems to be defined by where Secretary of State John Kerry is at any given moment. Riveted on the Iran nuclear deal, the White House dispatched national security adviser Susan Rice to Kabul instead of Kerry, in essence sending in the reserves.
Similarly, while Biden is highly credible as well as vice president, one wonders that if Kerry weren't preoccupied elsewhere, which official would have made the trip to China and Japan.
Further, even if the U.S. government had the capacity for multi-crises responses -- U.S. President Barack Obama's preoccupation with resurrecting his major legacy and singular legislative triumph, the Affordable Health Act, and helping Democrats win the 2014 congressional elections limits his attention -- what policies or actions could resolve these crises and who will develop them?
The national security organization never was and is not designed to handle multi-crises. Compounding these limitations, each of the major departments is already overloaded with responsibilities.
Defense faces massive cuts. Scandals from corrupt companies to sexual abuses demand valuable executive time when many senior positions are vacant. Finding a permanent replacement for the job of deputy secretary is still a work in progress. The intelligence community is still reeling from the National Security Agency/Edward Snowden revelations. And the State Department suffers from the same tyranny of time and limited executive attention.
There is an organizational answer: delegate authority and responsibility. Two possibilities could accomplish that.
First, within each embassy, establish a contingency cell created for these circumstances. The limitation is obvious. Resources would only allow this to done for selected posts and probably relatively few.
The other is to realign the staffs of the combatant military regional commanders along the lines of mini-National Security Councils with fuller senior representation from appropriate agencies. The limitations are also clear. No White House wants to defer or delegate responsibility beyond its control and few ambassadors will wish to feel subordinate to a regional boss.
But if Newton's law does apply, then the United States must do something to anticipate not merely multi-crises but ones that are both state- and non-state-based. Delegating responsibility, authority and accountability is one of the private sector's best practices.
Whether any president has the courage and boldness to apply that knowledge to government and crisis response is another matter.
(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
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