For the past quarter century, the green marble dais in the United Nations General Assembly Hall has been a pulpit from which U.S. presidents told the rest of the planet how things were going to be.
Bill Clinton used the rostrum to publicly prod Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a hoped-for peace, and to belatedly justify NATO's military campaign in Kosovo. George W. Bush stood in the same place to foreshadow his intention to go to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In 2011, Barack Obama celebrated – too early – the Arab Spring and the fall of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Mr. Obama was back at the same podium on Monday, this time to implicitly acknowledge that the old U.S.-led world order had disintegrated somewhere along the way. An age of multipolarity, for better and for worse, has arrived.
"Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world," was how the current U.S. President put it. Mr. Obama went on to concede that he would have to negotiate with Moscow and Tehran over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though he vowed there would be no return to the "pre-war status quo" in the shattered country.
An hour after Mr. Obama spoke, Russian President Vladimir Putin – who seethed for years as Washington toppled Moscow's allies in Belgrade, Baghdad and Tripoli – made it clear that the United States no longer gets to make the rules by itself. "We can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world," Mr. Putin said in his first address to the General Assembly since 2005.
Mr. Putin already backed those words up earlier this month with the surprise deployment of Russian fighter jets and ground troops into western Syria.
The speeches were followed by a 90-minute bilateral meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama, their first in nearly two years. While there was little personal warmth on display – they exchanged a quick handshake, but no words or smiles, for the TV cameras – Mr. Putin said afterward that he and Mr. Obama had agreed to improve relations and "overcome existing differences."
There's quite a gap to bridge. The clashing ideologies of the two leaders were plain throughout their remarks to the General Assembly. Mr. Obama lamented the rise of the idea that stability, even when brought by a "tyrant" (as he referred to Mr. al-Assad), was more valuable than freedoms. Mr. Putin spoke of greater chaos ahead if the United States (which he managed to criticize at length without using the country's name) carried on with its relentless promotion of democracy.
The applause that Mr. Putin received at the end of a 25-minute speech spent blaming the United States for all the trouble on the planet must have felt like vindication. A year ago, it was Mr. Putin – having just seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine – whom Mr. Obama painted as a villain from the UN podium.
China's Xi Jinping and Iran's Hassan Rouhani were among the other leaders who called for an international system based more closely on national sovereignty, rather than universal values. Mr. Xi backed up his call for greater multilateralism by promising that Beijing would establish an 8,000-strong force on standby for use in peacekeeping missions. He also pledged $1-billion (U.S.) in new support for UN programs.
On Monday, Mr. Putin also offered multilateral co-operation, calling for a UN-sanctioned military mission against the so-called Islamic State. (A U.S.-led coalition, which includes Canada, has been carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State for more than 13 months without a specific UN mandate.)
It's a barbed offer, one that Mr. Putin insists must include co-operation with Mr. al-Assad. But with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe, and few gains on the ground to show from the campaign of air strikes against the self-declared caliphate, Western leaders have little choice but to consider Mr. Putin's offered hand.
After the speeches, Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin held their first bilateral meeting in more than two years, a conversation the Russian leader described afterward as "very constructive, business-like and frank."
Mr. Putin suggested that Russia could join the current campaign of air strikes against IS, though he ruled out any ground operations in the country. He stuck to his line that Mr. al-Assad's fate must be decided by Syrians alone, without outside interference. A U.S. official told reporters that the two leaders had agreed to explore a political solution to the war in Syria, but disagreed over the future of Mr. al-Assad.
The tête-à-tête was an acknowledgment that Mr. Obama's strategy of isolating Russia and punishing it with economic sanctions until it changed its behaviour in Ukraine has thus far failed. The White House official said half of the 90-minute meeting had been dedicated to Ukraine, with Mr. Obama expressing concerns about the implementation of a ceasefire in the east of the country between the Ukrainian army and Kremlin-backed separatists.
Mr. Putin effectively forced the meeting by escalating the stakes at every turn. The presence of 28 Russian combat jets at an airfield near Mr. al-Assad's hometown of Latakia means there won't be a no-fly zone over the country unless Mr. Putin allows one. Russian tanks and artillery mean that Mr. al-Assad won't be toppled by a bunch of U.S.-trained "moderate" rebels.
After the disappointments of the Camp David peace summits, and the debacle of the Iraq invasion, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be in the Middle East where the era of American hyperpower came to an end. Mr. Obama's hesitation over Syria has proved as costly as Mr. Clinton's misplaced optimism over Israel and Palestine, and Mr. Bush's misguided war in Iraq.
Four years ago, when Syria's civil war was still in its infancy, Mr. Obama declared that "the time has come" for Mr. al-Assad to resign. Two years ago, after evidence emerged that the regime had used chemical weapons against its own people, Mr. Obama brought the United States to the brink of military action against Mr. al-Assad's forces, until Mr. Putin emerged with a plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons (though allegations of attacks involving chlorine gas and other agents remain part of the horrifying conflict) and save his ally.
On Monday, Mr. Obama was left acknowledging that Mr. al-Assad – after 4 1/2 years of war, 200,000-plus deaths and millions driven from their homes – would likely remain in power for the near future, until a "managed transition" could be arranged.
And it won't be a U.S. president who decides alone what happens next.
For U.S., Russia and Iran, defeat of IS just one goal among many others
The Islamic State
Russia's Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama agree: The terrorist Sunni group known as the Islamic State is their No. 1 concern in Syria, where IS forces control significant territory in the north, centre and east of the country. Beyond that, there's little the two men agree on.
Mr. Putin has been deploying armed forces and materiel to Syria (mostly in the Alawite homeland of western Syria) to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad so that the Syrian army can take the fight to the Islamic State.
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has been content to attack IS forces from the air and wants nothing to do with the tyrannical Mr. al-Assad. Indeed, Mr. Obama wants the tyrant out so democracy can flourish.
Mr. Putin argues that Mr. al-Assad's regime cannot vacate its offices until a new administration is ready to take over. To leave a vacuum, he told the UN General Assembly on Monday, risks a chaotic and volatile situation such as the one Libya now is facing in which extremists may very well triumph.
The Assad regime
While Mr. Obama might well wish to see the Syrian leader gone, it seems he is softening on just how soon he wants him evicted. Perhaps influenced by Mr. Putin's Libyan analogy, or by several European leaders, including Britain's David Cameron, who now argue it might be helpful for Mr. al-Assad to stay through a transition, the U.S. leader now allows that the dictator need not go immediately.
Mr. Putin told CBS interviewer Charlie Rose last week that "right now" Russia doesn't plan to "participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria." This leaves quite a lot of wiggle room should he decide to send his soldiers into combat.
The only issue that likely would cause him to do that, however, would be the prospect of the Islamic State gaining a completely free hand, if not complete control, in Syria.
The prospect of some 2,000 victorious Russian-born IS fighters returning to Chechnya and taking the battle to Moscow is more than Mr. Putin is willing to risk. It's better, he believes, to have that battle inside Syria rather than at home.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shares one thing in common with both Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama: He, too, believes religious terrorism is the greatest threat facing the Middle East and the world.
Of course, the Shia Iranian leader is referring to the Sunni brand of extremism as practised by groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda that also are opposed by the West. However, the United States and many of its allies, including Canada, Saudi Arabia and Israel, also view certain Shia groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement as terrorists.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rouhani said Iran would be willing to work together with the United States and other parties in "a united front against extremism and violence" in order to bring democracy to Syria.
The nuclear test
The Iranian President's pledge to work for democracy in Syria, however, is conditional on the United States and the other members of the UN Security Council passing a test.
Mr. Rouhani explained that while he is full of praise for the negotiations of the nuclear deal recently concluded between Iran and the Security Council's five permanent members and Germany, the deal also is looked on by Iran as something of a test – to see if the United States and others are sincere in truly implementing what was agreed, namely the lifting of sanctions against Iran.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that the United States hoped their two countries could work together to help resolve the crisis in Syria, Mr. Rouhani's chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, said on Sunday that such an arrangement would depend on the United States passing the nuclear test.
"We have to see whether the implementation stage can bring about some level of trust," he told the Al-Monitor news service.