By Serafettin Yilmaz
At the Friends of Syria meeting held in Paris in July 6, 2012, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the participating countries to make Russia and China pay a price for supporting Assad. It was obvious that part of this frustration was Washington’s inability to forge an alliance in the Middle East around the notion of international norms and mobilize the UNSC against Syria. It is argued that, immediate regional and global implications of this confrontation notwithstanding, the Syrian issue also signals a deeper shift in international relations in the long run to the advantage of the non-NATO states such as Russia, China and Iran. Unlike the previous coalitions of the willing, the U.S. now looks incapacitated due to strong and, thus far, unwavering Russian and Chinese objections. This development suggests the emergence of an alternative order that has begun to challenge the U.S. model of international governance more openly.
The long term implications of this development suggest a return of history, which negates the famous formula cooked up in the victorious 90s when some futurist scholars declared the domination of the world by the West and the Western modes of thinking. It proved to be a false prediction. Among others, several noteworthy exceptions soon started to prove the rule during the past decade: First and foremost, despite running fundamental reforms that encompassed areas from economics to local governance, China has not embraced Western norms in a wholesale fashion when it opened the country up to the world in the late 70s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Rather, it selectively endorsed and adapted what is thought to be beneficial for the country.
Secondly, Latin America witnessed the rise of nationalist/leftist movements with popular support in a number of countries. Washington’s response to this (partly because of too much attention being directed at the Middle East at the time) has been inadequate. The vicious cycle of previous decades did not repeat itself and the U.S. failed to undermine populist governments and to reinstate friendly strongmen or junta in these nations. Russia, in the meantime, found its way out of disintegration, political turmoil and economic recession under the leadership of Putin. With the partial help of high oil prices and expropriation of strategic national assets, Putin’s United Russia managed to kick start an industrial and military modernization program. Moreover, in line with the rise of China and Russia, such international bodies as SCO and BRICS gained strength and began to enjoy a greater say at the international stage.
Last but not the least the Syrian issue has the potential of bringing back ideology that has long been believed to be dead. The political polarization over this issue is reminiscent of the early 1970s that brought the Soviets and the U.S. on the brink of a military confrontation. Although a hot war between the two camps is unlikely at this point, one can detect an ideological polarization and confrontation similar to that of the Cold War years in the Middle East. Hence is the basis for the thesis as to the return of ideology into the center of global struggle for power.
During the years when Russia was still undecided about which direction to take under Yeltsin’s weak leadership and when China merely served as a world factory with little political clout, Western scholars such as Fukuyama, Nye and Keohane came to assert that no one would (and should not) challenge the existing world order anymore. For instance, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy and market capitalism was the end point of man’s social and political evolution, and there was no going further or going back. In the same vein, Keohane maintained that the world as it is today is better off under a single military and economic hegemon for it provided the required public goods and thus assured stability.
The currently unfolding events are more or less similar to those which started with the Six-Day War in June 1967 and reached their peak in October 1973. As it was some 50 years ago, today we have a West- dominated coalition confronted by a Eurasian bloc led by Russia and China. However, different from the 70s, today the fight is over Syria rather than Palestine. Yet, from a realist perspective what really matters is the bigger picture; the clash of ideologies, which, many believed, was well over.
It follows that the return of history may prove to be a viable alternative to the two decades of unchecked hegemony. Theories which claimed that the domination of the Western mode of international governance over its antitheses is good for everybody have been falsified and discredited. It appears that, when the international system is hegemonic, order emanates from chaos and chaos is inherent in order. Thus, since order cannot be maintained under a hegemonic rule, a clash of ideologies and the reinstatement of dialectic in the Marxian sense are needed. Indeed, the Syrian issue has rendered very clear the ideological and geographical boundaries of this clash.
Serafettin Yilmaz is a doctoral student in Asia-Pacific Studies (IDAS) at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He can be reached at [email protected]