How Syria Is Splitting Russia and China From the Developing World

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Emerging nations, long allied with these two BRIC states, are showing greater concern for human rights.

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South African President Zuma, Brazilan President Rousseff, and Indian Prime Minister Singh at the end of the fifth India-Brazil-South Africa summit in Pretoria / Reuters

The Security Council's recent failure to condemn Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown in Syria after months of attacks against unarmed civilians would suggest the case is hopeless. Russia and China vetoed a resolution proposing a process for a negotiated transition to democracy despite full backing from the usually anti-interventionist Arab League. The stalemate raises perennial questions about the international community's ability to respond to crises, the legitimacy of the veto power and the doctrine of responsibility to protect that underpinned intervention in Libya. The Syria vote, however, may have strengthened what appears to be an increasingly common view among the world's emerging democracies: dictators determined to stay in power at any cost are no longer tolerable.

The double veto has made international action in Syria all the more difficult. But it also shows that Russia and China are increasingly isolating themselves from a widening consensus that human-rights violations demand an international response. In one corner, established and newer democracies, more attuned to their voters at home, are under pressure to support movements for universal rights. In the opposite corner, China and Russia are silencing domestic dissent at home while trying to prop up comparable autocrats abroad. This divide became abundantly clear when India and South Africa disassociated themselves from their usual affiliates (BRICS) to support the Security Council resolution on Syria. Brazil likely would have joined its democratic cohorts if it were still on the council.

Rising Great Powers?

Rising democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa, along with their counterparts Turkey and Indonesia, are beginning to stand up for human rights in ways that may reshape the international system. India, Brazil and South Africa already self-identify as IBSA, explicitly invoking their democratic identity to differentiate themselves from Russia and China. Adding Turkey and Indonesia--large Muslim-majority democracies--to the group we call IBSATI would further distinguish these states as examples of developing democracies that, unlike Russia and China, have made remarkable economic progress while also expanding the rights of their citizens.

Cooperation with IBSATI and other like-minded democracies, however, requires some skillful diplomacy. We know from their response to the Arab Spring and other democratic transitions that the IBSATI powers share several characteristics when it comes to supporting political reforms in their respective regions and beyond. All five have made unequivocal commitments to democratic and human-rights standards both as a goal of national development and as a principle of their foreign policies. This shared starting point offers an opportunity to find common ground with each other and with more established democracies.

A wide gap exists, however, regarding the preferred methods of international action in this arena. The IBSATI states have a strong preference for softer tools of international intervention: what they call constructive engagement, mediation, quiet diplomacy and dialogue. In contrast, the established democracies are quicker to pursue condemnation, sanctions and even military action in extreme cases such as Libya and Cote d'Ivoire. As members of the Security Council during the Libya intervention, Brazil, India and South Africa wavered between measured support for and skepticism toward military action. But they did not block Western efforts to intervene. They did, however, strongly object to NATO's quick transition to a regime-change strategy, an approach that sowed the seeds for the current impasse over Syria. Even though they endorsed the recent resolution on Syria, India and South Africa had balked at earlier attempts to condemn the killings. They pushed successfully to dilute the text to avoid even implied authorization of force, instead stressing the importance of an inclusive, Syrian-led dialogue for political transition.

IBSATI's preference for mediation and dialogue over intervention can be explained in part by their own domestic narratives. Each country's history of overcoming authoritarian, military, racist and/or colonial legacies--which were directly supported or abetted by Western powers--in favor of constitutional democracy does not translate into unquestioned support for international interventions to protect democracy and human rights. The memory of external impositions and Western endorsement of odious regimes runs deep. The ghost of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq also endures. This leads policy makers in IBSATI countries to prioritize principles of national sovereignty and nonintervention and to oppose traditional means of "regime change" in favor of peaceful, mediated or longer-term processes of change. During the recent Security Council vote on Syria, India and South Africa repeatedly expressed respect for Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

IBSATI's objection to the current distribution of power in the international system has made consensus around Western-led efforts all the more difficult. To varying degrees, IBSATI states demand greater representation in the international order, leading them to oppose certain international actions on grounds of selectivity, double standards and hypocrisy. To secure a permanent seat on the Security Council, states like Brazil and India seek to win as many friends as possible, thereby mitigating overt criticism of nondemocratic regimes and reinforcing bonds of South-South solidarity. Moreover, their common quest for greater equity in the global architecture is often expressed as opposition to UN interventions led by established democratic powers.

All five of these states are intensely focused on carving out influence in their own regions and on playing influential roles in regional organizations. They also increasingly insist on deference to regional institutions as the gatekeepers to wider international intervention in political crises, a position that has the dual benefit, in their view, of limiting Western involvement and reinforcing their own roles as leaders in their respective regions. In a surprising twist, the Arab League endorsed NATO intervention in Libya and is leading the call for UN action on Syria, thereby helping to persuade IBSATI states to go along with a more muscular intervention to protect civilians. In the most recent Syria vote, India and South Africa both cited the Arab League's sponsorship of the resolution as important to their support. Turkey has also made its mark by loudly condemning Assad's barbarous acts and thus burnished its own leadership in the Arab world.

Human Rights Resurgent

The IBSATI countries provide a powerful narrative to reformers that democratic regimes and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. Those worried that democratic deficits in the IBSATI countries may make them poor models for democratization should be more optimistic; the reality provides compelling examples of transition, particularly for states looking for relevant works in progress rather than sermons on democracy.

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Rising and established democracies will consistently and publicly clash over preferred methods for protecting human rights. As displayed at the Security Council vote on Syria, however, there is room for cooperation--especially if the relevant regional powers are on board and respect for territorial integrity is explicit.

Russia and China's veto of the Syria resolution made them look like heartless autocrats, under siege at home and fearful of establishing any further role for the international community acting against internal repression. India and South Africa, on the other hand, used the language of human rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the restoration of individual dignity.

Though the international community so far has failed to act in Syria, the popularity of democratic norms among rising democratic powers signals a potentially powerful geopolitical shift in favor of human rights. Western powers would be wise to bring these emerging democratic powers into the fold by incorporating their concerns and getting serious about UN reform. Cooperation with them will not be easy, given their historical skepticism of Western powers and preference for mediated compromises and regional authority. But their common commitment to democratic behavior suggests that they may become close partners with the West, particularly when it comes to defending human rights.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Presented by

Ted Piccone & Emily Alinikoff

Ted Piccone is a senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, where Emily Alinikoff is a senior research assistant.

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