No progress at the G20 - but plenty to learn from the stasis

Merely by saying ‘no’, Russia has reasserted itself on the world stage

Share

To no one’s surprise, the G20 summit that ended yesterday has failed to produce even the shadow of an agreement on the Syrian crisis, let alone bridge the chasm separating the US and Russia on the issue. But few such gatherings have offered so unvarnished a portrait of the real balance of global power, or strengthened the sense that, over this last and bloodiest vestige of what was once referred to as the “Arab Spring”, a genuine watershed in international affairs may have arrived.

Two days in St Petersburg have confirmed many things. They have underscored how Vladimir Putin’s Russia is determined to re-assert itself on the world stage – if only by its ability to say no. They have shown, once again, that a mercantilist China will do nothing to upset its economic interests, and laid bare the inability of Europe to act on its own.

Britain, in the reputed words of a senior Kremlin official, is a “small island” to which no one pays any attention. But the same might be said of the rest of the EU. Germany, the region’s biggest economic power, is notable only for its deafening silence. France is keen on military action to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons, but unwilling to do so without Washington’s lead. Other G20 participants wring their hands in horror at what is happening in Syria, but shrink from any involvement. Which leads back, inevitably and as always at a moment of high international drama, to America and its role in the world.

It didn’t require a Kremlin notable to point out Britain’s diminished influence, half a century after the end of empire. Like it or not, however, in an era when the United Nations is no more than a fractious talking shop, the US is the nearest thing we have to a global policeman. It may be argued that no country has the right to behave as such, and America’s actual ability to change history, for all its military might, is sometimes exaggerated – not least by itself. For proof, look no further than the sorry state of Iraq a decade after George W Bush’s invasion. Yet in any major crisis all eyes turn to Washington, as now in Syria when the regime is accused of violating a ban on the use of chemical weapons of which it is a signatory, but which a paralysed UN Security Council is powerless to enforce.

The next few days will be decisive. Last month’s vote by the House of Commons against British participation in military strikes against the Syrian government may have been the right one. But seen through the harsh prism of realpolitik (which the Russians understand better than anyone) that vote has reduced Britain’s clout on the world stage. Of itself, that may be no bad thing. Unarguably however, it has happened.

For vastly higher stakes, a similar debate is now taking place in Washington. Unquestionably President Obama has behaved fecklessly over Syria – first declaring Assad must go without saying how, then casually laying down a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, then announcing his decision to use force, only to pass the buck to Congress, and all the while making it plain that deep down he would prefer not touch Syria with a barge pole. Trumpets do not come much more uncertain.

On present indications, the House of Representatives could well follow the Commons and oppose military action, thus agreeing with a clear majority of public opinion. If so, a definitive moment will have arrived. Either Obama, unlike David Cameron, defies his legislature and goes ahead with strikes anyway. Or he acquiesces – in which case, after all the bluster, there is no US military response. Not only would his presidency be gravely weakened at home. In the eyes of the world, so too would the credibility of America as global policeman. Truly, a watershed may be at hand.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice