Let’s veto the West’s moral posturing on Syria

There is more logic to Russia’s and China’s veto of the UN resolution condemning Assad than there is to William Hague’s sixth-former antics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

The civilised world is incensed at Russia and China for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime in Syria. Their behaviour is ‘incomprehensible and inexcusable’, says British PM David Cameron. Yet all this China-criticising, Russia-bashing posturing amongst Western leaders tells us rather more about their own political immaturity than it does about moral turpitude in the East. For all that Russia and China have done is act according to their geopolitical interests, to take a position grounded in realpolitik and policy considerations. That Western observers find such behaviour ‘incomprehensible’ reveals how far they themselves have become dangerously estranged from rational geopolitics.

You don’t have to be a supporter of Russia’s and China’s veto (spiked isn’t) to understand why they did what they did. The UN resolution condemned the Assad regime’s use of extreme force against protesters and called for a ‘Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system’. Both Russia and China have fairly deep political and business relations with Assad-ruled Syria and they clearly decided, through a process of interest-driven foreign policy-making, that it would be potentially destabilising for Syria’s rulers, and by extension for them, if international pressure were put on Syria to undergo regime change. Chinese officials have said that they don’t support Assad himself, and are critical of his recent actions, but they felt the UN resolution was rushed, with a vote being forced ‘despite serious differences’, and so they vetoed.

Yet listening to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British foreign secretary William Hague, and perusing the media coverage of Russia’s and China’s behaviour, you could be forgiven for thinking that they had invaded Syria and actually joined in the Assad regime’s bombing of Homs and other cities. Sounding like a sixth-former who has just signed up to Amnesty International, Hague accused Russia and China of having ‘blood on their hands’. ‘How many more [Syrians] need to die before Russia and China allow the UN Security Council to act?’ he cried. Clinton described Russia’s and China’s veto as a ‘travesty’ and said they now ‘bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria’. Likewise, French foreign minister Alain Juppe said they bear ‘grave historical responsibility’ for the bloodshed in Syria.

Don’t be sucked in by these grand-sounding condemnations of Russia’s and China’s alleged complicity in Assad’s war of attrition against his opponents – and not only because the condemnations are coming from the three permanent members of the Security Council who have actually used extreme force in the Middle East and north Africa in recent years and who therefore have, to use Hague’s adolescent phrase, ‘blood on their hands’. No, the real reason Russia’s and China’s actions appear so alien, so ‘incomprehensible’, to Western observers is because they are quite explicitly motored by geopolitical interests rather than by the fashion amongst Western foreign-policy departments for teenage moral bluster and highly changeable international positioning. The creeping consensus that Russia and China have inflamed instability in Syria glosses over the fact that today’s unhinged Western foreign policy-making, with its elevation of the short-term PR needs of Western leaders over any consideration of ‘the long game’, is far more destabilising than the occasional veto.

The truth is that there is more logic to Russia’s and China’s actions over Syria than there is to Hague’s and Clinton’s. The behaviour of Western foreign-policy departments in relation to Syria confirms that there is now a massive disconnect, a gaping chasm if you like, between the West’s geopolitical interests and its geopolitical behaviour. So a couple of years ago, America, Britain and France were courting the Assad regime, believing, in the words of Hillary Clinton, that Assad was ‘a reformer’. Under George W Bush, Syria was described as ‘evil’, of course, but following the election of Barack Obama in 2008 America’s attitude towards Assad became more conciliatory. Former presidential candidate John Kerry was sent to meet Assad, enthusiastically describing him as someone who ‘wants to engage with the West’, and in 2009 America appointed its first ambassador to Syria in five years. Meanwhile, in 2008 French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Assad to become a member of the European Union’s Mediterranean Union and entertained his wife in Paris. As a news report in 2010 put it, ‘Assad is now courted by the West’.

Yet today, Western leaders describe Assad as ‘evil’ and anyone who refuses actively to condemn him as complicit in his crimes against humanity. This shift can’t be explained simply as a result of Assad’s brutal response to the Syrian uprising – after all, even when Kerry and Sarkozy and the rest were laying out the red carpet for Assad, while wearing what Time magazine described as ‘high-wattage smiles’, he was a ruthless ruler without a democratic bone in his body, known to lock up or beat up his political opponents. No, the West’s turnaround, its malarial leap from courting to condemning, reveals the lack of any political anchor in Western foreign policy-making today, which leads to a situation where Western foreign policy can become highly suggestible, shaped more by the short-term PR needs of people like Clinton and Hague than by anything so old-fashioned as carefully worked-out national interests.

Hague is an instructive character here. In relation to Syria, he has used the British Foreign Office more like a pressure group than the international arm of a state with certain political interests and needs. Like an Amnesty-style worthy firing off press releases or doing emotive TV interviews, Hague seems to have thought very little about the potential consequences of his sabre-rattling over Syria, in terms of how it will impact on Britain’s relations with Syria (and Iran) or with Russia and China. None of that matters, it seems, in the face of getting a two-minute slot on BBC News to use phrases like ‘blood on their hands’ or getting a positive write-up in broadsheet newspapers that love it when political leaders go all moralistic and ostentatiously ‘humanitarian’, like Hugh Grant’s PM in Love, Actually.

In his inability to formulate anything like a consistent or even just a serious policy on Syria, and in his courting of favourable but fleeting headlines over preserving good diplomatic relations with Russia and China, Hague personifies the startling immaturity and changeability of modern, unanchored foreign policy. And that kind of behaviour can have a far more destabilising impact than what Russia and China did, or failed to do. The West’s kneejerk transformation of Assad into a pariah could lead to a situation where, feeling even further isolated, Assad lashes out with yet more intensity against opponents whom he is now cynically depicting as ‘cronies’ of Hague and Clinton and Co. What’s more, it could intensify tensions between the West and Iran, a key backer of Syria, lead to further turbulence in Lebanon, whose political world is intimately linked with Syria’s, and cause much diplomatic fallout between Western nations and Russia and China. It is remarkable that such potential consequences are not even borne in mind by modern-day foreign policy-makers, who appear to have completely lost touch with proper geopolitical considerations.

Those who claim that Russia’s and China’s veto has held back the cause of democracy in Syria should have a serious word with themselves. Why on Earth would you expect a semi-democratic regime and an undemocratic regime to help deliver democracy in Syria, any more than you would expect Hague or Clinton and the other bombers of Iraq and Afghanistan to do so? It is for the people of Syria to get rid of Assad and to try to build a new nation, not authoritarians and idiots from the East or the West.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today