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.