LOS ANGELES – Intellectual precision is especially vital in times of geopolitical passion. The full totality of evil of the Syrian government is now on display for the entire world to see. The brutality of President Bashar Assad is beyond immense. And so the blame game has begun.
The obvious target of global wrath is the hateful Assad. But not far behind on the international hate and blame list is Russia and China. They committed the sin of blocking United Nations Security Council action against Damascus by refusing to vote for resolutions that called for major changes (i.e., Assad must go). But about the use by Moscow and Beijing of the so-called veto, two things must be said.
The first is that Russia and China come at the issue from different perspectives. Moscow works from strictly defined national interest. Damascus has been a friend that has given it broad and significant access to the strategic Middle East without which Russian influence would be much reduced.
By contrast, Beijing approaches the issue from a broader perspective of (in effect) geopolitical philosophy. Living in a glass house itself, it is not about to advocate as accepted international practice the throwing stones at anyone else for the manner of their conduct of domestic security. This is to say that its overall foreign policy is grounded in the long-held principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.” The contrasting principle would be the “policeman of the world” approach, the practice of which the United States has sometimes been accused.
The Russian view, it seems to me, reeks of pure craven power politics — so that little more need be said. But the Chinese view is rooted in more complex thought, emotion and experience. They include a tortured history of centuries of intrusion and invasion by foreign powers eager to run China their own (colonial or neo-colonial or Western) way.
That view also derives from the Treaty of Westphalia, which way back when in 1648 ushered in the era of sovereign nations. The essence of sovereignty includes the right of countries to rule exactly as they wish as long as they stay within their borders. From the logic of the Chinese perspective, therefore, nothing that has been happening inside Syria should be said to be axiomatically a candidate for international intervention. In fact, it could be argued (though of course I won’t) that Damascus is struggling mightily to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria so as to avoid national fragmentation.
This leads to our second point. In the age of all-seeing and easily transmitted digital technology, the shortcomings of the Westphalian nation-state political philosophy are more evident than ever. The amazing media technology of the 21st century knocks down borders and collapses formerly remote regions of the world into virtual neighboring communities.
This current world reality has been recognized for years by the United Nations, the lead agency of the international community. For all its many glaring faults, the U.N. has consistently offered itself as one way out of the no-exit nation-state box. Kofi Annan, the previous U.N. secretary general, deserves credit for having insisted on the new global doctrine — “the responsibility to protect” (cleverly: “R2P”) — in the wake of the humanitarian disasters of Rwanda, Somalia, Srebrenica and Kosovo. The theory here is that the international community must exercise “the right to humanitarian intervention” when nation-states are visibly pulverizing their own people.
And so, notwithstanding the Security Council’s hostage to the structural impediment of the veto, the U.N. has been carving out an appropriately internationalist R2P role for itself.
In an interview back in August, I sat across from Annan’s able successor, Ban Ki Moon, the eighth U.N. secretary general (and only the second from Asia) as he explained his own unavailing efforts to deflect Assad from the horror he was planning. Remember now — this is in August.
I asked: “How did your conversations with Assad go? I mean, you pick up the phone and you call him, or he calls you, when he is probably shooting people?”
Ban answered: “Oh, yes. Of course, I urged him to stop killing your own people. Killing your own people is a dead-end, and a violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and you should listen attentively, and seriously, to the challenges and aspirations of your people — what your people are asking you to do. Please engage in inclusive dialogue, and take bold and decisive reform before it is too late.”
Ban continued with both emotion and logic in this fashion, explaining that “R2P” is now the normative standard in the approach of the U.N. secretary general to such issues of the so-called Arab Spring. Where a nation-state might coldly calibrate its policy toward humanitarian crises in terms of sheer national interest, the world’s leading international organization reverts to an international, humanitarian standard.
The U.N. secretary general believes that “a natural evolution of history” will make the ‘see-no-evil, hear-no-evil’ Westphalian approach outdated.
If so, then Beijing might be viewed as being on the wrong side of history. But at least the Chinese tendency is rooted in something other than narrow national interest. This contrasts with the Russian view, which is Westphalian at its worst.
Tom Plate, the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, is author of the “Giants of Asia” series. The veteran U.S. journalist has been interviewing the U.N. secretary general for “Conversations With Ban Ki Moon” — Book Four in the series, to be published in September by Marshall Cavendish Asia.