What brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) is the common desire to explore new ways of dealing with their development problems. As a loose grouping that includes authoritarian (China, Russia) and democratic (Brazil, India, South Africa) states, BRICS are not unique: the United Nations and the Commonwealth comprise autocracies and democracies. The presence of economically declining Russia shows that they are not even a collection of “rising” economies. Nor are they a movement or a new world order. Their wish that the international community should remain engaged in Afghanistan over the transformation decade from 2015-2024 shows that they are not anti-West.
But BRICS are dissatisfied with the policies of western-led financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank; they are frustrated with the dollar's status as a reserve currency, and they are concerned that American economic policy and western responses to the Arab Spring could be destabilising. BRICS are steered by their individual national interests. Just like the democratic U.S. which is heavily indebted to authoritarian China, and the financially mismanaged European Union — whose member-states, all democracies, hope that China will bail them out.
Rising India, Brazil — democracies which are confirming that dictatorship is unnecessary and undesirable for development — would rather live in world led by the U.S. than China. (Just as the U.S. would prefer to see India, rather than China, expand its influence in Asia).
Brazil and India have raised western expectations of diplomatic support on Libya, Syria and Iran. These expectations are ill-founded. Democracies have never united internationally. In March 2011, Germany — Europe's economic powerhouse and America's great ally — joined Brazil, India, China and Russia in abstaining from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorised the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya.
The Arab spring
At another level, the onset of the Arab spring last year saw Vice-President Joe Biden saying Hosni Mubarak wasn't a dictator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially lauding Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. Only when it became clear that the popular tide against them was irreversible did the U.S. start preaching democracy promotion to the Arab world. But in December 2011, the U.S. made a large arms sale to Saudi Arabia, reinforcing “the strong and enduring relationship” between Washington and Riyadh, despite Saudi help to autocratic Bahrain's crackdown and its opposition to any domestic political liberalisation. Moreover, the U.S. continues to provide Egypt's military with weapons. In an election year, when President Obama's electoral calculations (rather than facts on the ground) are shaping American strategy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and East Asia, it would be imprudent politics to annoy the domestic arms lobby by stopping the supply of matériel to Saudi oil despots and Egyptian generals.
Brazil opposed violence against the civilian population in Syria — but pointed out that intervention often exacerbates conflict. In February, India played a key role in the drafting of the Security Council's resolution on Syria, which advocated an inclusive, Syrian-led political solution. Russia and China enraged the West by vetoing the resolution because they felt it did not rule out western-sponsored regime change, but now Kofi Annan's plan envisages that Assad will remain in power. South Africa, too, wanted the Syrian people to decide their fate. Which is exactly what they will do by means fair or foul. As for the U.S.? Well, Obama finds the situation in Syria “heartbreaking” but underlines that the question is what's “critical” for U.S. security interests.
Quite. The stance of BRICS on Syria and Iran will, similarly, be dictated by their security interests. China imports some 20 per cent of its oil from Iran; India 16 per cent; both are concerned about Iran's nuclear strategy, but both will defy the American ban on oil imports from Iran. India will pay Iran in rupees and save valuable foreign exchange.
Unlike the U.S. and its EU partners, India and Brazil have not placed democracy promotion on their foreign policy agendas.
At least that makes them less hypocritical than the West. The more important fact is that India supports multilateral democracy-building through the U.N. Democracy Fund. Since 2005 it has been the second largest donor country, having so far contributed $25 million, after the U.S., which has contributed $38 million. That is far more than the amounts donated by rich Germany — $11,306,348 — and Britain — $609, 350 — to the Fund.
The cautious Indian and Brazilian attitudes to democracy promotion resonate — guess where? Among the American public. Democracy promotion abroad is a priority for only 13 per cent of Americans. In a recent CBS news poll, 70 per cent of Americans responded that the U.S. should stay out of other countries' affairs rather than replace despots. And given that the Libyan, Egyptian and Syrian springs might never turn into summer because democrats and unity are not easily found among Syrian and Libyan rebels, talk of replacing dictators seems unrealistic. It does not square with cuts in American defence expenditure and the West's keenness to quit Afghanistan — without having defeated the Pakistani-steered Taliban.
Will BRICS reshape the world in their own image? No — because they have no single image. Can they build an economically fairer world? They will try. Democracy via western-triggered regime change in authoritarian states? Not quite, because successful democracy is always home-grown. Taking the age-old common-sense approach to security BRICS merely want to maximise their diplomatic options and to judge international issues on their merits....
By M K Bhadrakumar
Expectations were low that the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Turkey on April Fool's Day would produce anything significant by way of advancing the agenda of regime change in Syria.
The host country tried very hard to produce a rabbit out of the hat. But the spectacle on the Bosphorus produced only one winner - the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked away laughing.
Things got bogged down on several counts. The Syrian opposition remains a motley crowd. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad shows no signs of fatigue and enjoys solid backing of the security and military establishment and bureaucracy. It is lurching toward the political and diplomatic high ground by announcing cooperation with the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan's six-point plan while forcefully changing the ground situation in its favor.
There is disagreement among the external powers. The Arab League summit in Baghdad last week summarily dropped its previous demand that Assad should step down. Like a bunch of spinsters, the "Friends" are reluctant to take the plunge. Russia, China and Iran remain firmly opposed to the regime change agenda.
The Istanbul meet made up with rhetoric. But the joint communique exposes the impotence. It recognized the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as representative of all Syrians and "noted" it as the principal interlocutor, but wouldn't accord full recognition.
It called on Annan (who declined to attend the Istanbul meet) to give Damascus a timeline to comply with his plan, but wouldn't suggest one itself. It stopped short of mentioning any support or military help for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Funnily, Saudi Arabia and "one or two" Gulf monarchies (read Qatar) might create a fund to bribe and engineer defection form the Syrian armed forces - a "pot of gold" to undermine the Syrian state. The bizarre idea is that the two Gulf sheikhs will pay salaries of any Syrian willing to fight the regime.
Clinton wisely kept her counsel to herself. Aside some fine rhetoric, the US limited itself to announcing a contribution of US$25 million as humanitarian assistance for Syrian people. But no one knows how the aid would reach the recipients.
For all purposes, "Friends of Syria" appears to be running down the clock. How come the US administration led by a cerebral statesman finds itself in such a circus?
The answer would lie in a candid interview to the CNN on Sunday by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in Washington, Representative Mike Rogers. Rogers said bluntly: "We [US] don't really see Assad's inner circle crumbling." He added, "They [Syrian regime] believe that they're winning, and we certainly believe that, through intelligence collection, they believe they're winning this."
Indeed, Damascus declared just ahead of the "Friends" in Istanbul that the "battle to topple the state is over". Syrian forces captured on Saturday the deputy head of the FSA, Abdu al-Walid who led the operations in the Damascus area. The FSA's top leader Mustafa al-Sheikh lives in comfort in Turkey and heads a depleted chain of command following the string of military successes by the Syrian forces.
The dismissive reaction by Moscow to the antics of the "Friends", therefore, comes as no surprise. "Ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. He added caustically that it is the UN Security Council, which will decide "who is complying with this [Annan] plan and how."
Lavrov agreed with Damascus that the peace plan wouldn't work unless the rebel forces also halted fire - "We [Russia] intend to be friends with both sides in Syria." As for the SNC, it reflects only a "fraction" of the Syrian people. "When decisions are made to call one group as legitimate representatives, one might jump to the conclusion that the other Syrians - both organizations and the authorities - are not legitimate. I think this approach is dangerous and works against the efforts being put forward by Kofi Annan."
Lavrov met rhetoric with rhetoric, but failed to match Clinton's flowery rhetoric. The great beauty of the US rhetoric is that Washington keeps all options open. This is an election year and President Barack Obama is not interested in a new military entanglement in Syria - or anywhere. But it won't also stop the "Friends" from grandstanding.
Washington's contribution is restricted to supplying communication equipment and humanitarian aid. But if the Saudi and Qatari sheikhs want to unburden many millions more to pay Syrian opposition fighters, Washington won't object.
The "red line" is about overtly arming the rebels, which may trigger a civil war. Clinton visited Riyadh on Saturday and tried to reconcile the Saudi hardline.
The point is, as Rogers underlined, it is a "bad idea" to arm the Syrian opposition, "mainly because we just don't know who they are ... And remember, giving a whole series of weapons to people who we don't know who they are - there are some bad characters as well - probably doesn't bode well for us in the long run."
In an opinion-piece in the weekend, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger gave the intellectual construct to these concerns. The Arab Spring didn't quite turn out to be the "regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles". Nor do democrats exactly "predominate in the Syrian opposition." The Arab League "consensus" over Syria is meaningless, shaped by authoritarian regimes that have no record as democracies. Kissinger warned:
The more sweeping the destruction of the existing order, the more difficult establishment of domestic authority is likely to prove ... The more fragmented a society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting Western values ... At this writing, traditional fundamentalist political forces, reinforced by alliance with radical revolutionaries, threaten to dominate the process.These are outcomes detrimental to the US's strategic concerns "regardless of the electoral mechanism by which these governments come to power." Kissinger's perspective comes startlingly close to what Moscow and Beijing have been voicing.
The Obama administration senses the dangers. It would like to adopt the safe course - at least until things clarified, especially in Egypt, where the sheikhs of the Muslim Brotherhood are about to challenge the sheikhs of al-Azhar as the principal point of reference in legislation, political governance and religious affairs. So, Washington found it expedient to put Russia on the driver's seat.
If Moscow succeeds and the crisis eases, Washington has nothing to lose and can always pick up the threads of political transition, and the US-Russia reset may even acquire some gravitas. But if Moscow fails, its capacity to stall in the UN Security Council takes a knock and the initiative is all Washington's.
The bottom line is that Washington today is seen as on the "right side of history". As Kissinger put it, "US conduct during the Arab upheavals has so far avoided making America an obstacle to the revolutionary transformations. This is not a minor achievement."
Again, Moscow's ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar have come under strain. In his speech at Istanbul, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal condemned Russia as the evil influence on Damascus. China, which has been storming the West's citadels in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, also needs to do some serious fence-mending.
This works to Washington's geopolitical advantage. Taking advantage of the profound sense of insecurity and alienation sweeping the Saudi regime, the US is about to realize the dream project of shepherding the GCC states into its global missile defense architecture.
A senior US state department official said regarding Clinton's visit to Riyadh over the weekend, "We are working with each of them [GCC states] to develop the architecture" for a regional system; Washington's goal is to gather all the existing US tactical defense cooperation with individual GCC states into a "strategic context."
The newly-created US-GCC strategic cooperation forum, which met in Riyadh on Saturday, rewrites the Persian Gulf security scenario. The context is the Iranian "threat". But geopolitically, the arc of the US's global missile defense system extending from Central Europe through Turkey is now poised to take a leap across the Middle East to graze the waters of the Indian Ocean.
In sum, Washington ties in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, and can always revisit the crisis in Syria in due course.....LOL