Russia Eclipses America: Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, seized the initiative over Syria by turning a throwaway comment from the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, into a plan to forestall an American strike against the Assad regime and open the way for peace negotiations.
ONE OF THE GREAT QUESTIONS in life is: why do bad things happen to good people? A few days ago the TV news carried a story of an frail Syrian grandfather who had lost his entire family in a bombing raid. The news crew found him sitting outside the ruins of his village.
“They are all gone, and I am left behind”, he lamented. “Why did God spare me and not them?”
An equally perplexing question, in the light of even more recent developments in the Syrian civil war, is: can good things come from bad people?
The Russian Federation, presided over by the autocratic Vladimir Putin, is a dark and menacing state in which persistent critics find themselves imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and effective critics are found murdered in the street.
And yet, this vast kleptocracy, with its protective screen of political praetorians, is currently the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in possession of a viable plan for preventing a military escalation in Syria. It is even possible that Russia’s plan to collect and destroy President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile could end up establishing the conditions for a negotiated peace.
The Russian plan – to which Syria swiftly assented – set the diplomatic machinery in motion at top speed. It also fell like a life-belt over the flailing hands of President Barack Obama, facing imminent defeat and humiliation at the hands of his own legislators.
The plan itself was inspired by a throwaway suggestion, elicited by a British journalist’s question addressed to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and dismissed by him as impossible in almost the same breath.
Asked what Assad could do to avert a military strike, Kerry responded that he could “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over. All of it. Without delay, and allow a full and total accounting before that, but he isn't about to do it and it can’t be done.”
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, thought differently. With his Syrian counterpart fortuitously in the Russian capital, negotiations were instantaneous and intense. It did not take long for both men to agree that Kerry’s throwaway suggestion offered the framework for a consensus resolution on Syria which all five veto-weilding members of the UN Security Council could sign.
Cynical? Opportunistic? Yes, Lavrov’s move was all of those. And yet, without the Russians’ determination to pick up and run with Kerry’s suggestion, the Syrian situation would have remained intractable and the likelihood of an American attack would have grown.
Lavrov’s diplomatic flexibility, his capacity to seize upon Kerry’s words and fashion a new and workable alternative to a punishing American attack, owes a great deal to the authoritarian character of the Russian state.
The pluralistic nature of American politics; the rigid separation of powers enforced by the US Constitution; the multiple and effective opportunities for democratic engagement available to American citizens: all these contribute to the slow pace US diplomacy.
Sergey Lavrov, unlike John Kerry, has only to convince one man before proceeding. The same is true of Syria’s foreign minister. Kerry’s master, however, has many hoops to jump through before shouting: “Go!” Autocracies may be cruel and rapacious, but they can also be extremely efficient.
And therein lies history’s terrible irony. The United States of America, the world’s richest and most powerful state, also claims the role of the world’s sole moral arbiter. The American people are encouraged to view their great republic as “the indispensable nation”. To the Americans, and the Americans alone, belongs the responsibility of dividing the world’s nations into the good, the bad and the ugly. When America goes to war it is “to make the world safe for democracy” (Woodrow Wilson) or in defence of “the free world” (Harry Truman).
And yet, wherever the beneficent and liberating figure of Uncle Sam has set down his giant combat boots – Vietnam, Iraq – all that he has wrought is greater destruction and more misery. Even America’s “good war”, World War II, was marred by its atomic conclusion.
And, of course, the war against the Nazis was won not by that great democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but by the murderous Joseph Stalin. Evil overcame evil on the killing fields of Russia and Eastern Europe: Good had a supporting role – at best.
Winston Churchill grasped this irony: of evil doing good in spite of itself; as only an aristocratic conservative could. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he quipped to one of his colleagues, “I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
So, let’s wish Mr Lavrov and his master every success. If the Devil is determined to bring peace to Syria, why would God stand in his way?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 September 2013.