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A Last Hurrah for Unilateralism

Nicolai Petro
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Obama found himself in hot water at the G20 summit. Having orchestrated a brilliant move to force the Republicans to go on the record in support of an Obama foreign-policy initiative (a military strike against Syria), he learned at the G20 just how unconvincing his reasons sounded to much of the rest of the world.  

Most observers seem to think that the disagreement between the United States and the rest of the world revolves around whether chemical weapons were used and who used them. It does not. The real issue of contention here is who has the authority to issue and impose sanctions on behalf of the international community.

Three distinct views on this were on display at the G20. One view, held by the US alone, is that it has the right to speak for and act on behalf of the international community. As President Obama put it at his press conference in Stockholm, "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line." United Nations consent is not needed and rarely preferred.

A second view, which has its share of supporters in Western Europe, argues that although UN consent is preferable, ultimately any coalition led by the US has the authority to act independently. America's traditional allies are not always willing to provide military or financial support, but they are at least willing to give the United States the benefit of the doubt.    

The view of most other nations was forcefully articulated by the leaders of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) at this summit. It is that no one nation, or group of nations, has the authority to act outside of UN guidelines. Any military action taken without explicit UN sanction is a violation of international law.

We have Putin to thank for this since his speech at the 43rd Munich Security Conference admonishing the US for carelessly overstepping its national borders. As a result, he said, "no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall behind which they can find shelter." Russia's president has emerged the world's most ardent advocate of multilateralism.

Putin's critics in the US often mistake this for anti-Americanism, though it can easily be argued that Putin began his presidency as the most pro-American leader Russia has ever had. One can only mistake his present stance for anti-Americanism if one equates American interests with the pursuit of global hegemony.

In fact, Putin has done the President and the American people a great favor by forcing them to confront opinions they usually ignore. Obama can now be under no illusions about how the majority of the world regards his decision to strike Syria outside of the framework established by the UN.

Will this knowledge change America's course? The initial signs are not encouraging.

In a last-ditch effort to convince America's closest allies to support the Syrian war effort, the US put intense pressure on ten other G20 leaders to sign a statement supporting US efforts for "a strong international response."

Administration officials say that because these nations are aware of US military preparations they are "effectively embracing it" (New York Times, September 7, 2013). This is certainly not the interpretation of Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who reiterated that Italy would not intervene without a clear UN mandate.    

But while Obama seems trapped into arguing that there is no alternative to war, the G20 meetings did encourage him to consider leaving himself a way out.

According to the Italian newspaper La Republicca (September 7, 2013), part of the deal for getting the ten signatures in support of US efforts was a commitment by both France and the US to await the findings of the UN report on Syria. French President Hollande has already publicly acknowledged this, although president Obama has not.

If this report does not alter the current course toward war, however, we may be witnessing the last hurrah for American unilateralism.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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