By Sharmine Narwani
Russia and China have drawn a great deal of censure this past year for resisting UN Security Council resolutions to intervene in the domestic affairs of Syria and Iran. Why, many ask, would this duo leverage their growing global political clout for two Mideast states so actively marginalized by their fellow UNSC members – the US, UK and France?
And do these new Russian and Chinese positions place them on a collision course with Washington – in the Middle East and elsewhere?
While the US has typically viewed this activism as a direct challenge to its global hegemonic interests, neither Moscow nor Beijing have any specific strategy to slay the American behemoth. On the contrary, the non-confrontational positions they take in the Middle East are “reactive” ones, designed to slow down, halt or counter US economic, political and military aggressions heading in their direction.
Russia and China have good reason to be concerned about US initiatives in the international arena in the past few years:
Empire confronts Emerging Powers
The UN Security Council has morphed into little more than a rubber stamp for Washington’s foreign policy ambitions. Instead of acting to preserve international peace and security, the UN body has either sponsored or tacitly accepted one too many US-backed regime-change adventures for the liking of the world’s newly emergent political and economic powers, the BRICS. But for obvious reasons, it is Russia and China who have been tasked to do the heavy-lifting.
For one, Washington’s hostility is focused most heavily on these two BRICS states. The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a unipolar world dominated in all spheres by the United States. Most threatening to this US hegemony today is China, whose dizzying economic growth has accompanied an American decline. Not only has the US racked up unprecedented financial debt with the Chinese, but Beijing, favorably positioned in the region most likely to enjoy explosive growth in decades to come, looks to go from strength to strength.
Economic hegemony is the driver of political power, so Washington has used every threat in the book to crash China’s party. Narratives now abound about the danger China poses in its direct neighborhood, so American warships head into the South China Seas to offer protective cover. In yet another anti-China storyline, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2011 warned shrilly about China’s “neo-colonialism” in places like Africa, ostensibly to shift business away from the enterprising Chinese back to the original colonial and imperial powers.
Clinton directly confronted the Russians in a no less aggressive manner when, in the aftermath of the 2011 parliamentary elections, she incited Russians to take to the streets and protest against “electoral fraud.” The incident was seen by US-nemesis Vladimir Putin as a color-revolution tactic to scuttle his anticipated victory in the upcoming presidential elections. By the time he won the poll, frigidity had seeped into bilateral relations.
But American tactics have misfired. US confrontation has not marginalized Russian and Chinese power – instead it has helped give it “direction.”
Forming Alliances for Protection
Unwilling to take these undeserved hits, Russia and China have been forced to form protective alliances against US aggression in various arenas. The most obvious of these is the BRICS, once nothing more than a convenient acronym to characterize four disparate emerging economic powers. In no small part because of US aggressions, this grouping suddenly found its feet, and began to collude on defense, economic and financial projects.
And then on November 24, 2011, the BRICS announced their first joint foreign policy statement – on the Middle East of all places – urging, among other things, the rejection of foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.
This is no coincidence. For reasons of timing, geography, urgency and threat, Syria became the de facto “line in the sand” for the BRICS. There would be no more tolerance for the military and regime change adventures of the United States and its allies.
By virtue of their geopolitical and economic weight, these nations decided to decisively insert the concept of “soft power” into the dangerous Syrian crisis, and force the international community to grow up and find a political solution. The BRICS put their “arms around Syria,” so to speak.
While this was an important step forward for all involved, it was particularly urgent for Russia and China to intervene. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, these two wielded the most clout, but they also had the most to lose if the unpredictable tsunamis spinning in the Middle East did not stop at Syria’s borders.
For one, they believed the US would not reign in its interventionist behaviors until it had effectively landed at the doorsteps of Beijing and Moscow. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger points to the obvious in a Washington Post Op-Ed he penned last June about the repercussions of overzealous American interventionism: “Intervention that is unilateral or based on a coalition of the willing evokes the resistance of countries fearing the application of the policy to their territories (such as China and Russia).”
But there have been other critical considerations, some of these gleaned from more than a decade of watching American-led regime change operations in Afghanistan, then Iraq and more recently, in Libya – all disasters. Under the deceptive guise of “humanitarian intervention,” Kissinger argues that the United States is in effect undermining the existing world order which is premised on the territorial inviolability of the sovereign nation-state:
“In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another. In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath.”
Political, not Military, Solutions
Sanctions, interventions and military escalations have proven to be destabilizing in the extreme, not just in the Middle East, but with sometimes global ramifications. Given the already debilitating effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, the human and economic cost of further conflict has the potential to plunge entire populations into depravation overnight. Russia, China, and other fast-growing, heavily-populated middle states have argued that these are critical times, and that active diplomacy must be employed to find political solutions and avoid military ones.
But Washington seems unable to take the long view in the Middle East, and continues its escalations with Syria, Iran and other regional players unwilling to cater to US interests.
China’s ambassador to Lebanon Wu Zexian told me last year: “Part of our divergence with the west is that they think that the problems cannot be solved by themselves in the region.” Arguing that Iraq and Afghanistan showed that “intervention is not successful,” the Chinese want a “dialogue and consensus to be an essential part of the political process.”
The Russians – and to a lesser extent the Chinese – also fear the ramifications of borders torn apart, lawlessness and chaos in a region where Islamic extremism can take hold and spread. Both states have had their own negative experiences with radical Islam, but importantly, have proactively reached out to moderate Islamists to counter and mitigate the spread of extremism.
On the other hand, Russia and China watch with growing concern American interaction with the Muslim world, where moderates – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, for instance – are marginalized, and where in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, US short-term interests appear to be increasingly aligned with those of Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni militants. Worse yet, the militarization of conflicts in many of these countries are unraveling the only authorities and borders that kept extremism in check for decades.
For months now, western media pundits salivate over every hint that Russia is about to abandon Syrian President Bashar al Assad or any suggestion that China is prepared to forsake Iranian oil.
Neither will happen, and here’s why. Iran and Syria are the only two regional countries with the collective will, interest and power to halt US hegemonic pursuits in its tracks, and have done so with relative success over the past decades. In a sense, Damascus and Tehran stand guard in the Middle East as important buffers against an increasingly militarized US – and as a valuable distraction keeping Washington from nipping at Russia and China’s heels.
Soft Power Leads New Global Order
But Iran and Syria also share some fundamental values with the BRICS and other emerging regional hegemons. They believe in the value of soft-power, diplomacy and trade as essential tools of statecraft. They believe that peace and stability, domestically and regionally, are vital for development and economic growth.
Importantly, they also believe it is past time for middle states around the world to have a seat at the decision making table – whether at the IMF, World Bank, WTO, UNSC or whatever emerges in the aftermath of this unipolar order.
For Russia and China, backing a political alternative to military conflict is a clear and compelling first choice in any region of the world. But in the strategically important Middle East, the threat of multiple confrontations has made it all the more vital for Moscow and Beijing to step up and engage in de-escalating crises.
The stakes are extremely high and come at a time when the world is also awaiting fundamental shifts in the global political and economic balance of power.
Whatever the short-term inconvenience, there is little chance that Russia and China will be swayed from their current positions in the Middle East, particularly in relation to preventing foreign intervention in Syria and unilateral sanctions against Iran. They understand full well that this is the Waterloo of the current global order – what comes next will be worth the wait.
This article was originally published at the BRICS Post on January 18, 2013.