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It's my way or the highway

india Updated: Sep 05, 2013 23:42 IST
G20 summit

The G20 summit in St Petersburg was supposed to be about the world economy but is being overshadowed by the deep divisions among its members on how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

The United States and some of the European members will seek to pressure the summit's host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, into at least ending his public opposition to a military strike against Syria.

Noticeably, none of the major players involved seem to be giving more than lip service to getting a United Nations Security Council resolution sanctioning such action. US President Barack Obama is only interested in the legitimacy of a US congressional vote.

Putin, while citing the UN, seems more interested in being seen to stand up against the US. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are demanding the US strike be a full-fledged bombardment that decisively shifts the military balance in the civil war in the favour of the Syrian rebels.

The divisions at the G20 and general indifference to the UN reflects a larger malaise that afflicts multilateral groupings in today's world. Multilateralism works best when the larger powers broadly share interests and have collegiate relations among them.

Second best is when a single nation is powerful enough to swing others to follow its line. Neither situation exists today. The hostility between the US and Russia is only the most public example of the lack of commonality among big nations.

China quietly promotes division, but not cooperation. Berlin's view on intervention in Syria is closer to Moscow's than it is to Washington's. Paris is more likely to follow the US into Syria than Britain.

Countries like India, Brazil and Indonesia have returned to being supplicants rather than contributors to the international system. Most telling, however, is that the sole superpower is increasingly unwilling or unable to put together 'coalitions of the willing' to support its actions.

This does not mean it cannot militarily overwhelm other countries. But it does mean Washington is less willing to expend energy in the UN or other multilateral fora looking for agreement.

Whether it is the UN, G20 or even the Nato, the sense is that the international glue needed to keep multilateralism functioning is diluting rapidly. This is not good news.

Cooperative action helps provide global public goods that individual countries cannot. The bodies that should be reknitting the international system are devolving into personality battles or media events.

Syria, ultimately, is a small country of little strategic value fighting with itself. Yet it has made 'international community' an oxymoron.