The line-up of prestigious participants at last week’s G-20 summit held in St. Petersburg was a new opportunity for the world leadership to manifest itself, evoking rather strikingly several historical precedents. I am referring to the reunion of ‘world powers’ between 1815 and 1914. Even though, in the interval between the 19th century and the early 20th century, the goal of those reunions was to maintain the European – and planetary, by extension – power-balance, last week’s global summit already feels like déjà vu. The key players may be different, but the “major power players” were there (France, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, and Italy) and so were other world powers that have emerged throughout history, including China, India, Brazil, Spain, Turkey, etc. with the United States of America in the forefront. The very location of the reunion reminds us of the imperial splendour of la belle époque- the Constantine Palace in Petersburg from the golden era of the “world powers”, which was recently renovated for this special occasion.
The summit was attended by state leaders who are presidents or prime ministers of the 20 member states belonging both to this global assembly of “world powers” that was established in 2008-2009 under the circumstances of a still ongoing systemic financial and economic crisis, and to global (UNO, IMF) or superstate (EU) management institutions. This type of attendance proves the evolution of the modern concept of “systemic representation”. In the 19th century, such reunions were driven by the necessity of finding a solution to the systemic crisis, one that would prevent war and unify the participants’ divergent interests. Similarly, a crisis monopolized the discussion at this year’s reunion, although its pre-established nature was different. The debate arena for discussing solutions to this crisis was a dinner and participants had open discussions by which they expressed views on the military intervention in Syria.
I believe it is worth mentioning the main points brought up for each side of the discussion over the U.S. (who led a ‘coalition of the willing’) military intervention by supporters of this decision and opponents to it, one of whom was Russia. Some of the arguments invoked by supporters of the intervention were: the fact that a ‘red line’ has been crossed by the use of chemical weapons; the need to show the substance of the R2P doctrine, namely the global ‘responsibility to protect’ the citizens of a state, the political leaders of which have committed genocide against their own people; the need to put pressure on the Assad regime and persuade it to negotiate a solution, especially considering that its forces are gaining ground before rebels; the need to weaken the Iranian camp’s influence in the power play taking place in the Middle East; the need to discourage Iran from purchasing a nuclear bomb, despite the Western World’s passivity toward the use of mass chemical weapons in Syria; etc. Likewise, arguments of the opposing side were: lack of conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were indeed used by Assad on August 21; the still upcoming U.N. experts’ report on the incident; the irrational nature of Assad starting a chemical attack against rebels, considering the fact that Assad was in a position of tactical superiority against the rebels; etc. The discussion also included logic and common sense-defying arguments, such as the U.S.A. and Al Qaida concluding a strategic alliance to encircle Iran, Russia and China, or Russia collaborating with Iran to support the latter’s rise to hegemony in the Middle East.
It must be said that the debate over a possible military intervention in Syria has a dimension that I have named “the byzantine thesis”, which was introduced by two famous experts, E. Luttwak and R. Kaplan, in articles published recently in The New York Times and by Stratfor. Both cited authors believe the current Syrian situation is favourable both to the fight against international terrorism and to the process of discouraging Iran from getting hold of nuclear weapons. They point out that that the Arab enemies of the West (Jihadists, Islamists, radicals, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the Assad regime and its supporter, the theocratic regime in Teheran, etc.) are practically fighting against each other in the greater scheme of the Syrian civil war. Luttwak says: “But the Obama administration should resist the temptation to intervene more forcefully in Syria’s civil war. A victory by either side would be equally undesirable for the United States. At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests. Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy – posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.” He is the author of a famous book published several years ago (in 2009), which proves the Byzantium’s millennium-long survival was based on its strategy to avoid war and setting enemies against each other or buying their trust against their adversaries: “The Byzantines bribed, connived, dissembled and so forth – Kaplan writes – and as a consequence survived for centuries on end and fought less wars than they would have otherwise”. Extrapolating the Byzantine strategy in Luttwak’s interpretation to today’s situation, Kaplan concludes: “A Byzantine strategy, refitted to the post-modern age, would maintain the requisite military force in the eastern Mediterranean, combined with only vague presidential statements about the degree to which such force might or might not be used. It would feature robust, secret and ongoing diplomacy with the Russians and the Iranians, aware always of their interests both regionally and globally, and always open to deals and horse-trades with them. The goal would be to engineer a stalemate-of-sorts in Syria rather than necessarily remove al Assad”.
Last Thursday, the dinner started an hour later and lasted four hours. The two opposing camps were immediately outlined. Italian Prime Minister Letta wrote a tweet at the end of the meeting: “The G-20 has just now finished the dinner session at which the divisions about Syria were confirmed”. The mood of the discussions was set by a lavish menu, fireworks and La Traviata by Verdi. German magazine Der Spiegel wrote: “During Thursday night’s dinner, it became clear that, while all of those present condemn the use of poison gas, none of them seemed inclined to do anything about it. At the same time, though, few appeared interested in preventing the US from going it alone. Participants said that most believed an attack rested solely in the hands of the US Congress.” The U.S. has already begun the process of establishing a ‘coalition of the wiling’ and the White House is pressuring the Congress into speeding decision procedures and military actions, suggesting that the intervention in Syria will soon be set in motion.
Last Thursday’s dinner at the imperial palace Constantine in Petersburg instituted the “global power assembly”. This historical dinner included bilateral meetings that enabled views, controversies or even subtle agreements to be exchanged. Is it simply a coincidence that Russia used the same public remark in London that Secretary of State Kerry had made on Monday, September 9, regarding exerting international control over the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons to pressure Damascus and, surprisingly, to get Assad’s approval for it? All these incidents took place yesterday and the day before (September 9 and 10) and offer various perspectives on possible solutions to the Syrian crisis.