Canberra. The sun is shining. The sky is clear. There is not a breath of air. It is a wonderful day: so much light and clarity. But the time for taking my usual pre-work early morning walk has long passed. The clock is ticking; the day has already slipped away from me. I am frozen in my kitchen chair, too astonished to move. Senator Bob Carr exploded a strategic concept over my breakfast table.
In the midst of bacon, eggs, and sausages I opened The Australian to read our Foreign Minister saying the unthinkable.
In an article headlined incredibly “Syrian solution lies in Putin’s hands” I read:
“…it is time for the world to focus more sharply on what seems the only immediate viable solution [to the Syrian crisis]: a lead role for Russia.”
What Carr has just said, officially and on behalf of Australia, is that the era of American global dominance has faded away; that America is not necessarily the indispensable nation; that we have entered a multi-polar world in which other players might be more effective in dealing with particular crises that occur, from time to time, on the international stage; that Russia is one of these players; and that in Syria it has a decisive role to play.
It’s such a break with Australia’s long held deference to the United States and its policies that an authentically nutty idea flashed into my head. I wondered whether the Americans have admitted to themselves that only Russia can lead on Syria and that, to save face, the Americans are asking the Australians to get the message out.
Yes, that’s completely bonkers. Among other things, it would be an admission of “declinism” that America will not make, especially not now while it is still in the early stages of superpower sclerosis. This is the phase of the illness in which the sufferer can deny the existence of symptoms or at least what they portend.
So we need an alternative explanation. Since the Russians have stymied the Americans over Syria, the Americans, with Australia in step, have decided on a tactical retreat.
“OK, then,” they’re saying, “let’s allow Tsar Vlad to play the king maker in Syria and let him wear whatever muck flies out of the breakdown. We’ll offset our load of Iraqi losses with losses for the Russians in Syria.”
That has about it just the right amount of world weary cynicism to make this scenario plausible … with us eager Aussies ready to play the disingenuous role of inviting the Russians to take the lead.
No. That won’t wash either. The Americans don’t need southern hemisphere Lilliputians to carry its messages to Moscow. Moreover, this scenario fits neither the Carr persona nor the signs of foreign policy ambiguity and relativism evident from time-to-time in his blog “Thoughtlines”.
What we are looking at here, I think, is a genuine policy-realist initiative by Foreign Minister Carr and the Australian Government. No doubt the Americans were forewarned, and the fact that they have not stopped Carr from taking this line is significant in itself of how they presently see themselves.
As Carr wrote,
“Some believe the US, while not able to take any options off the table [in dealing with the Assad regime] has no appetite for another Middle Eastern war.”
That “some” includes the Obama administration. It’s clear, furthermore, that the Americans realise that they have no diplomatic clout with Assad. The way they abandoned Mubarak in Egypt destroyed whatever shred of credibility that remained to them in their dealings with Middle Eastern potentates.
All that’s left on Syria is to let the fire burn untended – which no-one wants - or to go for the Russian option.
The people who will be most relieved by the prospects of a Russian-led settlement in Syria will be its Christian communities. With the experience of their Iraqi brethren burned into their memories, they will be relatively comforted by the thought that US cavalry regiments, bearing democratic revolution, will not be driving to their rescue.
A strategic and diplomatic watershed has been crossed. And remarkably Australia looks in the lead.
*Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies.