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Tribune: The tangled web of international relations

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Hilary Stauffer | Last week’s G20 summit (a periodic confab of the world’s top 20 industrialised economies, plus assorted special guests and hangers-on) was overshadowed by the spectre of Syria.


Hosted in St Petersburg by Russia, which currently holds the rotating presidency, the summit’s key objective (per the official program) was ‘fostering strong, sustainable and balanced economic growth’. But almost all the media reports about the meeting were focused on Syria and the persistent drumbeats of war.


The possibility of another Mideast military escapade has understandably captured the world’s attention.  However, reporters and commentators couldn’t help a bit of gleeful mischief-making in highlighting the uncomfortable interactions between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his stalwart frenemy, US President Barack Obama. Russia’s patronage of Syria is presently a major undercurrent of their mutual apathetic animosity, as is Russia’s decision to offer temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.


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The summit ended with competing press conferences by various world leaders; prompted by sharp questions from the press corps, each leader strived to say that all other parties present shared his view on ‘what to do’ about Syria, although it was clear that nothing definitive had been decided. On the final day of the summit, the White House released a statement jointly endorsed by 11 of the G20 members, condemning the August 21 chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus and calling for a ‘strong international response’. It was as interesting for those who appended their name (Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US) as for those who didn’t (Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and South Africa).


All the countries that attended the summit are almost certainly worried about the proliferation and use of chemical weapons and the majority of G20 members likely have little sympathy towards Bashar alAssad’s regime. So, why not sign a largely symbolic statement that compels no concrete action? Because in the tangled web of international relations, even symbolic statements have hidden significance.


Many G20 members are suspicious of the US’ motives in Syria. But there are other labyrinthine motivations, as well. Russia is setting itself up as the obvious counterbalance to US interests abroad. However, Russia is also one of the vaunted ‘BRICS’ nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). The catchy acronym was bestowed by a Goldman Sachs wizard to cover an arbitrary group of emerging economies that — a few years ago — were on an upward trajectory.  But members of the group have since met up periodically to discuss areas of mutual interest — such as, containing US influence where possible.


Mexico and Brazil are both furious at recent revelations in the Brazilian press (via Edward Snowden) that the NSA monitored communications of their respective heads of state. Argentina is nursing a long-standing grudge against the UK for its ‘imperialist’ designs on the Falklands Islands. China wields a strategically important veto at the UN Security Council and is notoriously anti-interventionist. However, its opposition may have been meant primarily to signal its displeasure with its Asian counterparts: Japan and China are involved in a territorial dispute over some islands in the East China Sea and China is the only remaining patron of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; South Korea’s menacing neighbour to the north.


Indonesia is a relative newcomer to the international stage and although its foreign minister condemned the attack, it is likely to feel uncomfortable operating outside a UN mandate. Germany and India may seem strange bedfellows, but both conspicuously abstained from the Libya resolution at the Security Council, in 2011, and both countries are facing major elections in the coming weeks or months — a public stance on something like Syria may sway voters unfavourably. (In fact, Germany belatedly added its name to the Joint Statement, prompting the ridicule of opposition parties.)


There is an age-old maxim that ‘all politics is local’ and this proves true even in the face of the use of chemical weapons. Obama faces an uphill battle convincing the US Congress to authorise military action, but it seems his vaunted persuasive skills need some additional practice in the international arena as well.

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