The G20 begins today and whether this is the best or the worst of times depends on how important one considers Syria to be. Because the manoeuvring and diplomacy surrounding the increasingly vicious civil war - and the prospect of international intervention - is likely to consume a good deal of the oxygen in the environs of St Petersburg.
Oxygen that might otherwise have been spent on discussing other urgent issues. The founding raison d'être of the G20 was to bring together the leaders of the world’s largest economies for the purpose of managing and securing the global economic system, and the in-tray for those devoted to that task in 2013 is not light.
Growth, financial regulation, tax avoidance, public spending levels and development investment represent just a sampler of the urgent issues awaiting deliberation by those charged with keeping the global economy alive amid the rolling aftermath of the financial crisis.
But the summit also brings together several of the main players in the stand-off over Syria at the very moment that the United States is readying itself to deliver air strikes against the Assad regime.
So there’s no doubt that there will be intense wrangling over the geopolitics of the Levant. The only question is how thoroughly the spectre of Middle East conflict will subvert the original agenda.
Red line fever
Barack Obama goes into the gathering publicly committed to military action, but uncertain of the necessary support for it either at home or abroad. Having drawn a “red line” – perhaps deliberately, perhaps with inadvertent firmness – against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, he now argues that the credibility of the US, and of the international community’s prohibition of the use of poison gas, is on the line.
He is committed to a campaign of limited military strikes, with the intent of sending “a shot across the bow” of the Assad regime.
At home, his administration is engaged in a frantic effort to shore up Congressional support since his unexpected decision to consult the legislature before taking action. This has shown some tentative but erratic signs of bearing fruit.
Internationally things are less hospitable. A majority of the national leaders among whom he will spend the coming days are leaning with varying degrees of firmness against his planned show of force. Indeed, he is likely to face more than scepticism - but rather outright opposition - to his plan from Russia, the chair and host of the summit.
Even if this week’s gathering were limited to the old G8 – a far cosier gathering dominated by traditional US allies even after extending to include Russia – Obama would have faced an uphill battle to enlist support. Germany has made it quite clear that it will play no part whatever in lending legitimacy to US military action. The UK, first name on the team-sheet when it comes to suppporting the US in its military interventions in recent decades, has ruled itself out of any participation, David Cameron’s initial bullish enthusiasm cut down by a parliamentary vote last week.
Of its traditional European allies, only France - ironically the focus of blistering American ire for its public resistance to the Iraq invasion of 2003 - has thus far offered full support. Even that remains to be tested by a vote of the National Assembly.
At the G20 gathering, those who follow the niceties of transatlantic relations closely can expect to enjoy the sight of British diplomacy straining to shore up what remains of the “special relationship” in the aftermath of the sucker punch delivered by the UK parliament last week. It will also be interesting to watch the French president, François Hollande, making what hay he can of his nation’s restored status as America’s “oldest ally”, at least as long as his own legislators allow him that pleasure.
But this is not the same G-club of two decades, or even one decade, ago. Russia was traditionally the odd-man out at gatherings of the G8 (the G20’s predecessor at the centre of global economic governance) thanks to its insistently explicit embrace of spheres of influence, national sovereignty and realpolitik. But now it finds itself bolstered by solidarity in these views from rising powers by China, India and Brazil.
While Russia’s defence of the Assad regime may represent unashamed self-interest in preserving a long-standing and ever more dependent client, it will not struggle to win supportive noises among the expanded G20 group for opposing the principle of the US as a “global policeman” outside of the UN Security Council framework.
Adding to current strains, Obama called off planned bilateral meetings with Vladimir Putin thanks to arguments over the fate of the leaker Edward Snowden, but it seems unlikely that either side has an interest in giving unrestrained vent in public to the simmering rancour over Syria. To judge by his advance remarks, Putin seems disposed to play this as simply one conflict of interest between the US and Russia, with areas of common interest still open for productive exploration in parallel.
Even if geopolitics must unavoidably intrude, he is unlikely to want to have “his” G20 summit entirely overshadowed by bickering over a sideshow at the expense of the economic agenda over which the event is supposed to preside. The US, meanwhile, while lobbying as best it can to win support in the background, would be foolish to force too explicit a head-count of supporters for its military plans, since such a move would be all too likely to reveal its relative isolation.
Russia’s behaviour during the Putin era has suggested that one of his chief diplomatic priorities is to manoeuvre into positions that oblige the US to treat Russia as a weighty interlocutor, whose great power interests must be taken into respectful account in calculating American actions. With Russia in the G20 chair and the balance of international opinion against US plans on Syria, he may feel confident enough that he is getting a taste of what he wants for something resembling (slightly complacent?) good cheer to manifest itself on his part.
In any case, those who expect that the summit will produce movement towards either widespread international endorsement of a US military strike of any kind, or the abandonment of Assad by his backers, have a vanishingly small chance of seeing their hopes realised.
Why does this matter? Because whatever Obama does militarily in Syria, he is almost certain to be doing it without authorisation from the UN Security Council, since it is within Russia’s power to block any moves on that front. This places US action outside the mainstream of international law, and leaves the US president reaching for the more nebulous and elusive banners of “legitimacy” and “the international community” to justify his actions.
With an uncooperative Security Council and wobbly NATO allies, a G20 which waves away US protestations that “something must be done” will represent one more multilateral forum in which American pretensions to speak as the representative voice of the management of world order have failed to gain purchase. Whatever America’s next step, it is shaping up to be a lonely one.