How to explain the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government's continuing killing spree against its own people? What strategic interest or moral imperative dominates their thinking?
Officially, Russia and China claim to be preventing the international community from doing another Libya; they are insisting on patience and "balance." The U.S., UK, France, the rest of the Security Council and pretty much the rest of the world, including the Arab League, beg to differ. Those speaking out the most forcefully don't buy what they consider excuse making for a bloody dictator.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice finds no ethical stance that can justify it, calling the vetoes "disgusting" and "shameful" and warning that the blame for the future deaths of Syrian civilians is on Russia and China. Amb. Rice does not comment on what strategic interests the vetoing states might be pursuing, though we can certainly speculate.
For Russia, Syria's dictatorship is its last client left standing in the Middle East, both political and economic since Syria provides a warm seaport and buys Russian weaponry. To watch it fall means ceding the field largely to the U.S. and the EU, and losing revenue. The stakes are indeed high for Russia. For China, the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest -- apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can -- according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are. (That China seems to contradict itself when it comes to Filipino, Vietnamese, or Japanese territorial interests requires a little semantic gymnastics.)
But let's look at this matter from thirty thousand feet. This latest turn in the Syrian tragedy reminds one of Talleyrand's famous comment applied to Napoleon's judicial murder of a noble: "[I]t was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." That is, the stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU. When the West and the Arab League are on the same page, and most of the second and third ranking powers and beyond are with them, any state taking Bashar al-Assad's side is hard-pressed to stake a claim for world leadership. Syria's blatant violation of the norms of the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights is patently obvious, as was the late Muammar Qaddafi's. For Russia and China to fail to recognize that and join the rest of the world in condemning it and seeking an end to these violations is in some ways worse: We expect tyrants like al-Assad to do what he is doing, but since the democracy revolutions and the Arab Spring, we rightly expect a different reaction from members of the Security Council entrusted with the only international organizational authority to do something about it.
No one expects Russia to lightly watch an ally go down, or for China to acquiesce in what it considers the violation of the most important international relations principle. Neither country wants to see further precedents being set of the average citizen rising up to challenge the established power. But I'd use their own words against them, the words they used in announcing their veto regarding the need in the resolution for "balance." There was a certain logic to calls for "balance" during the Cold War no matter how clanging it sounded. Much of international relations was a zero-sum game. But the Cold War is over. The publics of the Middle East are all in various stages of uprising and rebellion against centuries of tyranny, and they are aided by technology and social media in a way that means they will not be deterred short of death. That is a fact. Therefore, to oppose them and call for "balance" or "restraint" is to side with those who would without compunction kill as many of their citizens as they have to in order to stay in power; we're talking genocide now as a matter of course and endless instability. The democracy genie is out of the bottle.
So now the logic of "balance" is moot; urging acceptance of the democracy-crushing status quo is a spent force. International prestige and legitimate claims to world leadership now rest on those who accept that history has indeed ended in this sense: People want the dignity of self-government and they have the technological means to perpetually bring once unshakeable dictators to the nightmare scenario. Would-be world leaders should choose the right side now. After all, both ethics and logic point the way clearly now. That's the real "reset" that is needed, and it is good to see the Obama administration's diplomats at the UN representing it.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.