The civil war in Syria, and the responses of the United States, Russia and China to it, are unfolding amidst a new world order – one that, remarkably, most resembles the nineteenth-century "Concert of Europe," a loose and informal grouping of the then Great Powers: Britain, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia (later the German Empire), France and Italy.
During the course of the nineteenth century and until the outbreak of the First Word War in 1914, the Great Powers tried to preserve international peace by maintaining a balance of power. This meant that whenever one of the powers, in conjunction with lesser allies, challenged the accepted international order the "concert" banded together and confronted the aggressive power militarily or through diplomatic isolation.
For example, on several occasions in the nineteenth century, Russia threatened to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France waged the Crimean War in 1853 against Russia, in part, to prevent the Russians from doing so. Whenever the Russians came close to unraveling the Ottoman state or turning it into a vassal, the other Great Powers intervened and through war or diplomacy forced the Russians to back away.
Tragically, as the Great Powers coalesced into two armed camps by the early twentieth century, the flexibility of the Concert of Europe was lost and within less than a decade led to the catastrophic First World War. International relations in the interwar period were fragmented, one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Second World War.
During the Cold War, the international community adjusted to a bipolar world in which the Warsaw Pact, dominated by the Soviet Union, confronted the U.S.-led NATO. The prospect of a nuclear holocaust prevented another world war, but all crises had to be contained within the limitations of the rigid bipolarity.
The end of the Cold War in 1991, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, left the United States as the sole superpower. These developments placed the Americans in a unique position and one that compelled them to act as the world's policeman. Despite the disproportionate military capability of the United States, at first American administrations tried to act within the bounds of international law and the spirit of the United Nations. During the first Persian Gulf War (1990-91), the United States attacked Iraq only after establishing a coalition of states and securing a mandate from the UN Security Council.
The NATO air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo War (1999), however, lacked a UN Security Council endorsement because Russia vetoed it. The American argument for intervention was that NATO had the right to humanitarian intervention within its region and that the United Nations charter implicitly sanctioned its actions. Meanwhile Russia and China were too weak to directly challenge the NATO action in Kosovo.
Perhaps America's long-term failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the almost simultaneous rise of a more powerful Russia and China, began the process of a new order in the Middle East that is now manifesting itself in Syria. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration went to war against Iraq without UN authorization, flouting international law.
The NATO air war against Libya in March 2011 was waged with UN Security Council sanction because Russia and China abstained from employing their vetoes. Both these countries had neither strategic nor economic interests in Libya. Syria, on the other hand, is a country in which the Russians and Chinese have strategic and economic interests. The Russians maintain a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, while the Chinese have limited petroleum and other economic investments. Moreover, Beijing is primarily interested in supporting its Russian ally and is opposed to intervention in any region.
The Iranians, Turks, Israelis, Saudis, and Qataris have specific regional interest but they can only act in concert with one or two of the new Great Powers. At the same time non-regional powers such as the United Kingdom, usually a staunch American ally, have refused to join a U.S. strike against Syria, for domestic reasons. France has opted to support President Obama's call for action, while Germany and Canada, strong American allies, remain on the sidelines. The United States, consequently, can no longer count on all of NATO to support its actions. Instead, it is forced to cherry-pick allies for a coalition to offer a semblance of legality with respect to an act of war that has no basis in international law.
Just as in the years of the Concert of Europe and the efforts by its members to maintain a balance of power, the new Great Powers have to tread carefully over Syria. Consequently, the Americans are careful to indicate that their intervention against Syria will be punitive and will not go beyond a missile strike, thus leaving the Assad regime intact. In effect, the Americans respect the interests of the Russians and Chinese in order to maintain a balance of power both internationally and now in the Middle East.
This is the first occasion in which an informal concert of Great Powers is acting and reacting to an international crisis where great care is taken to respect the interests of rival powers. As a result, the freedom of action of the Obama administration with respect to Syria is limited by the interests of Russia and China, and is just enough to allow President Obama to salvage his international reputation.
André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University and is the author of Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East (Thomas Dunne, 2011).