Revolution in a Vacuum

MADRID – The Cold War is long over, but superpower rivalry is back. As a result, the international community’s capacity to unite in the face of major global challenges remains as deficient as ever.

Nowhere is this more clearly reflected than in the case of Syria. What was supposed to be a coordinated effort to protect civilians from ruthless repression and advance a peaceful transition – the plan developed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan – has now degenerated into a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

Russia’s leaders (and China’s) seek to uphold an international system that relies on the unconditional sovereignty of states and rejects the Western-inspired, humanitarian droit d’ingérence. Concerned that the Arab rebellions would radicalize their own repressed minorities, they refuse to allow the UN Security Council to be used to promote revolutionary changes in the Arab world. And Syria, the last Russian outpost of the Cold War, is an asset the Kremlin will do its utmost to maintain.

But Russia and China are not the only problem. Major emerging democracies like Brazil, India, and South Africa have been especially disappointing in their response to the Arab Spring. All are outspoken paladins of human rights when it comes to condemning any Israeli defensive attack in Gaza as “genocide,” but are equally united in opposing Security Council action on Syria, even as the repression there grows ever more appalling. The Arab uprisings either clashed with their commitment to the inviolability of national sovereignty, or stoked their fear that “humanitarian intervention” would merely be another tool of Northern dominance.