The Security Council’s recent failure to condemn Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown in Syria after months of attacks against unarmed civilians would suggest the case is hopeless. Russia and China vetoed a resolution proposing a process for a negotiated transition to democracy despite full backing from the usually anti-interventionist Arab League. The stalemate raises perennial questions about the international community’s ability to respond to crises, the legitimacy of the veto power and the doctrine of responsibility to protect that underpinned intervention in Libya. The Syria vote, however, may have strengthened what appears to be an increasingly common view among the world’s emerging democracies: dictators determined to stay in power at any cost are no longer tolerable.
The double veto has made international action in Syria all the more difficult. But it also shows that Russia and China are increasingly isolating themselves from a widening consensus that human-rights violations demand an international response. In one corner, established and newer democracies, more attuned to their voters at home, are under pressure to support movements for universal rights. In the opposite corner, China and Russia are silencing domestic dissent at home while trying to prop up comparable autocrats abroad. This divide became abundantly clear when India and South Africa disassociated themselves from their usual affiliates (BRICS) to support the Security Council resolution on Syria. Brazil likely would have joined its democratic cohorts if it were still on the council.
Rising Great Powers?
Rising democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa, along with their counterparts Turkey and Indonesia, are beginning to stand up for human rights in ways that may reshape the international system. India, Brazil and South Africa already self-identify as IBSA, explicitly invoking their democratic identity to differentiate themselves from Russia and China. Adding Turkey and Indonesia—large Muslim-majority democracies—to the group we call IBSATI would further distinguish these states as examples of developing democracies that, unlike Russia and China, have made remarkable economic progress while also expanding the rights of their citizens.
Cooperation with IBSATI and other like-minded democracies, however, requires some skillful diplomacy. We know from their response to the Arab Spring and other democratic transitions that the IBSATI powers share several characteristics when it comes to supporting political reforms in their respective regions and beyond. All five have made unequivocal commitments to democratic and human-rights standards both as a goal of national development and as a principle of their foreign policies. This shared starting point offers an opportunity to find common ground with each other and with more established democracies.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”
It seems like the administration has tried to keep a clear, consistent tone in terms of being really upfront about the range of U.S. concerns vis-à-vis Beijing’s behavior and about the competitive nature of the relationship overall, and [President Biden's first call with Chinese President Xi] reflects that.