That new world order has lost some of its sheen in the past two decades. But in 2011, some kind of epic liberation is again taking place – this time in the Middle East. The United States and Europe are once more looking on approvingly, for the most part. But again, Moscow has issues. So does Beijing, whose leaders view mass street protests with alarm.
Yet unlike in 1989, the US and Europe are now cash-strapped and described as "exhausted." The rising powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the BRICS) hold an estimated $4 trillion in foreign reserves and make up one-third of the world's 6 billion population. And they are posing new challenges to the world order shaped by the West.
From Europe, many see the BRICS as less interested in shared ideas of a multilateral world, and more inclined toward a nationalistic, multipolar world that emphasizes their own new strengths and interests. The result is fading authority and consensus on the world stage. The cold war "spheres of influence" between two powers are long gone. The new world order of American dominance has faded. But no clear leadership or rules have replaced this. New fights between trends of human rights and democracy – and sovereignty – have no rules as of yet.
The clash came into stark relief in a UN resolution on Syria this month. The resolution called on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to halt its "violent offensive at once." That offensive has been in the news every day since March: The United Nations stated Oct. 14 that more than 3,000 protesters have been killed in the bloodiest episode of the Arab Spring.
The debate over sanctions against Syria
In early October, the West was setting the stage for putting great pressure on Mr. Assad. On Oct. 2, in Istanbul, Turkey, the Syrian National Council (SNC) debuted as the international opposition to Assad's regime. The council includes Muslim Brotherhood figures, secular advocates, academics, and pro-US and pro-Turkey figures. Europe and the US back the SNC. Its launch in Turkey – which shares a border with Syria – with the blessing of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was significant.
In New York, meanwhile, European UN envoys worked overtime on a resolution against the Assad regime's behavior. A mild final version didn't contain the word "sanctions," but it did call for access for aid groups, the exercise of "fundamental freedoms," a peaceful political outcome, and other standard earmarks of what could be called civil society norms.
In Europe, the resolution was seen as both supporting the narrative of the Arab uprisings and standing up for deeply held European values. As a joint communiqué by France, Portugal, Germany, and Britain stated later, the resolution "contained nothing that any member of this Council should have felt the need to oppose...."
Yet opposed they were. On Oct. 4, both Russian and Chinese ambassadors raised their hands in a joint veto. Brazil and India abstained (along with South Africa and Lebanon), giving further heft to the veto. The BRICS spoke. US Ambassador Susan Rice and the American delegation were visibly furious and walked out. Ms. Rice said the next day that the vetoes ran against Syrian citizens' "yearning for liberty and human rights." Ambassador Gerard Araud of France said, "Our aim was – and remains – a simple one: to bring an end to the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown against its own people, who are legitimately demanding the exercise of the most basic rights...."
Mr. Erdogan of Turkey, a state whose profile seems to exist halfway between the West and the BRICS, said on Oct. 5 that "Syria ... should have received a warning.... The people of that country do not need to endure a merciless, shameless, tyrannical regime that bombs its own country from the sea. My heart remains with those struggling for freedom." European media such as Spain's El Pais opined that "the crude 'no' from Russia and China constitutes a serious setback for the West."
Much of the discussion about the Russian and Chinese vetoes has stressed geopolitics: Russia and Syria have strong ties and robust arms sales. China tacitly supports Iran, and Tehran does not want Assad removed. Most significant is Moscow's insistence that it was duped on UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, a humanitarian intervention that led eventually to the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi from Tripoli. Beijing argues for sovereignty come what may, analysts say, and was ready to veto the Libya resolution, but didn't want to be left standing alone should the rebels of Benghazi be overrun in a bloodbath.
Hence the Syria veto is considered "payback" for Libya, and comes with an explanation from Moscow that the West could have again used a UN resolution to gin up another intervention. (With NATO barely able to sustain an air war in Libya, and with more jets in the Syrian Air Force than in the French Air Force, some analysts find the idea less than serious.)
Rather, the "enabling of Assad," as The New York Times described the joint veto, points more largely to a world order that appears makeshift and in drift.
'The next order'
'[The BRICS] are leery that the West is saying 'welcome to the club' – but the order we erected after World War II is here to stay," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "They say, 'That order was your order. Now it is time to talk about what the next order will look like.' That's the rub – the difference between emerging and existing powers.... It is unfortunate this gamesmanship plays out over Syria."
Indeed, in the heat of the UN moment on Syria, it's easy to forget the double standards that many other countries see as part of the Western concept of order. The narrative of intervention from Kosovo – when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia in 1999 – to Libya comes with shifting rationales and charges of US hubris. The US intervention in Iraq left a particularly bitter taste, with charges of US unilateralism. European states, too, reacted slowly to an Arab Spring in their former colonial states.
Almost on the same day that the US accused the BRICS of bad faith on Syria, for example, the Obama administration blocked a UN vote on Palestinian statehood. The White House had political considerations. But then the US voted against Palestinian membership in UNESCO, joined only by Latvia, Germany, and Romania (with 14 abstentions). Several BRICS voted in favor of it.
As for China and Russia, constraining US adventurism and Western power is "part of their foreign-policy identity," says Ben Judah of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "The Chinese remain deeply unnerved by 1989 ... and the Arab Spring. They wonder how a Middle East star performer like Tunisia, with a high growth rate, can be toppled by a popular protest."
The joint veto may have eased deeper frictions between Russia and China, which usually drafts behind Moscow on the diplomatic scene. On Oct. 11, Vladimir Putin, poised to replace the more Western-leaning Dmitry Medvedev as Russia's president, was in Beijing to sign a pending $7 billion natural gas deal with China, which has become the world's No. 1 consumer of energy.