Guest Post: How America, Europe, China, and Russia enable “Democracy in International Relations”

By JR of the excellent Just Recently blog

According to American or European conventional wisdom, China and Singapore have a lot in common. They are both “authoritarian”. Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahatir Mohamad and Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew advocated the concept of “Asian values” in the 1990s. Lee Kuan Yew still believes in authoritarianism. But he also believes in an American role in Asia, “to balance China”. So does the Vietnamese party leadership.

When I stayed in Aleppo, Syria, a few years ago, you would find Chinese light trucks in every street. You’d also find typically China-made consumer goods in every street. The light trucks were quite popular. Most other Chinese products were obviously bought, too, but they weren’t liked. Displayed on markets and in shops, along with pieces of traditional Syrian handcraft, the reason for the contempt was palpable. Comparing the prices, the demand was palpable, too.

Some Syrians who I heard condemning China’s growing economic influence in Syria will now condemn its political clout – at the UN Security Council. But other Syrians – “ordinary” people, too – will like it. It’s hard to assess how much popular support the Syrian regime has, how much popular support the Free Syrian Army has, and how many people of different ethnicities and religions are caught between two warring parties, neither of whom seems to show much respect for individuals who just want to survive.

Let’s suppose that the conditions were exactly as described by most mainstream Western media and al-Jazeera, in March 2011. Let’s suppose that peaceful demonstrations turned violent, because the regime hadn’t learned to handle them peacefully. And let’s suppose that Syria’s well-being was foremost on the minds of American, European, Turkish, and Arab-League leaders when they began to arm Syria’s opposition.

Obviously, everyone is free to comment and explain how this, in his or her view, is not so – but I want to keep my point within this post rather simple.

There is the idea that once innocent people are being killed, and you have the means to stop the killings, you have to do so. There is, to put it into legal words, “R2P”, the “responsibility to protect”.

The problem with that: neither Beijing nor Moscow liked the concept – and both of them feared losing a relative ally in the Middle East, the regime in Damascus. Beijing probably also disliked the notion that an existing regime may not be legitimate. Either way, once their approach had been rejected by the UN Security Council, the R2P “specialists” began to create facts by tunneling international law, and stoking the fire with arms supplies to the Syrian opposition.

The idea looks simple, and decent: you arm innocent people so that they can protect themselves against brutal dictators. That could be a great idea – if there were only criminals among the dictators. But there are criminals among the opposition, too.

It’s hard to tell how things would have evolved if the monopoly on violence (in the sense of legitimate and illegitimate force) would have remained in the hands of the dictators. What we do know however is that the question is no more “how many million people Assad is going to kill”. The question is how many Syrians will get killed in a protracted civil (or international, depending on how you look at it) war in Syria.

There is a responsibility to protect when you are in a position to protect. But the question arises if the Syrian regime hadn’t done a “better” job in that responsibility, if they and their opponents had been left alone with each other.

One can engage in an assignment of guilt here. In my view, neither side at the Security Council really put the Syrian people first. That’s a burden on every party outside Syria. That neither party sees that shared responsibility for the current misery is one reason for its continuation.

But there’s a bigger picture. The concept of sovereignty may be outdated in a number of ways – but in international relations, nothing practical has replaced those aspects. In 1982, Assad senior flattened an entire Syrian city to “quell unrest”. Nine years later, the same regime was a welcome ally in America’s war to liberate Kuwait. Nobody can tell me that our fundamental values have changed to a degree that made the bypassing of the UN mandatory in 2011 or 2012. “Humanitarian concepts” can open the door to arbitrary political decisions, and they frequently do.

Not that the Chinese concept of “democracy in international relations” is less compromised. As Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” That’s why Lee Kuan Yew likes the idea of America balancing things in Asia.

Both sides, when it comes to their beloved concepts, want to have their cake and eat it. For now, there can only be a balance between human rights and sovereignty – upheld by highly compromised proponents.

Things could be worse – but if both sides took their own concepts more seriously, things could also be a lot better.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

An excellent post, thank you. I’m glad you made the point that the US can be just as bad as China and Russia in turning the other way when it’s expedient to do so.

October 3, 2012 @ 5:26 am | Comment

I suspect the major beneficiary of this whole Syrian mess with be Turkey and the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan government. Now claiming a leading role in the Islamic world, looking for cultural influence and affiliations across the ‘Stans. And this will not bode well for Chinese economic and cultural imperialism in Xinjiang.

October 3, 2012 @ 6:35 am | Comment

Not sure about Turkey, KT. It may look nice for people like Erdogan, but his alliance with the Arab league is a limited-purpose alliance. They agree that they want to overthrow the Syrian regime, but they do not agree about what should replace it. The more Turkey throws its weight, the more hostility they will earn among Arabs, not least for historical reasons. Erdogan isn’t good at “making friends”. It might be a different story if he was more broadly minded. President Gül is a much smarter politician than Erdogan.

October 3, 2012 @ 5:30 pm | Comment

Personally I do not see a sovereignty as being a bar on the protection of human rights, only the force that’s behind it. Any one of the world’s top miliary powers could launch a genocide and the other countries of the world would be powerless to prevent it, but this would not mean that sovereignty had trumped human rights.

October 3, 2012 @ 10:14 pm | Comment

There’s no real friendship between countries – there’s only interests.

No, that’s not some view of some nasty dictator. That’s a direct quote from Winston Churchill and originated from Charlese De Gaulle.

George Washington uttered something to the same effect.

October 5, 2012 @ 7:47 am | Comment

@The Clock – Lord Palmerston actually, Math would at least have got that part right. Can we have a new replacement troll? This one is broken.

October 5, 2012 @ 2:03 pm | Comment

Could you re-phrase comment #4, Foarp?

October 5, 2012 @ 11:18 pm | Comment

I mean that ‘sovereignty’ in this case is only as convincing as the military force behind it.

October 6, 2012 @ 1:18 am | Comment

Convincing for whom?

October 6, 2012 @ 3:40 pm | Comment

The real point is that there is no way that any of the great powers are going to intervene to solve crises like the Syrian one in a balanced way which puts the interests of the Syrian people first. There are too many interests at stake.

Perhaps it would be better to have some sort of neutral international force, like the UN’s peacekeepers but with real authority, deal with these issues.

In any case it is almost impossible to find an objective standard to determine when it is morally acceptable to violate a country’s sovereignity to protect human rights, and when it isn’t.

October 7, 2012 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

jixiang, I think the problem is that a neutral international force isn’t something the UN SC powers could agree to, either. If they could, they’d probably find common ground on Syria anyway, even now. A neutral force, too, needs people who decide about when it is time for that neutral force to intervene, and the question is which power (or powers) should make such a decision.

There is another problem which makes China’s and Russia’s positions more difficult: things may well reach a stage when intervention is morally justified – but it has to be said that the other powers, i. e. America, Europe, Turkey and the Arab League, have done a lot to aggravate the situation.

Intervention in Syria would probably encourage that kind of approach in future conflicts, too – and I don’t think that this should be left out of the account. This alone is a good reason for Beijing and Moscow to oppose every further step against the Assad regime – sanctions, intervention, or whatever.

October 8, 2012 @ 2:12 am | Comment

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