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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London