Diplomacy, democracy and multilateralism: On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, is the crisis in Syria bringing the world to its senses?

Whatever else might be said about the age of globalization, one of its defining qualities is the speed with which circumstances can change.

The last few days have been particularly head-spinning.

Just over a week ago, in response to allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, some kind of armed Western intervention in Syria seemed imminent.

In Washington, London and Paris, sabres were rattling, and the ground was being prepared for war. All signs pointed to another round of shock and awe.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya…  redux.

And then, the tide turned.  By the time of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg September 5-6, divisions over Syria within the international community were so sharp and deep that the meeting was effectively hijacked.

What has happened, and how might these events be interpreted?

The chronology set out below represents somewhat of a case study in the importance of the unexpected.

It started in London. Whether the result of a colossal political miscalculation or divine providence, PM Cameron’s fateful decision to put his bellicose “in principle” resolution to an open vote in the UK parliament August 29th allowed the people to be heard. In a stunning rebuke, the motion was defeated, and that gesture seemed to set off a chain reaction.

Inevitability was replaced by uncertainty.

On August 31st,  President Obama abruptly changed course and decided to seek Congressional approval for any military action against Syria. Although the President and members of his administration  lobbied furiously for an affirmative decision, support was at best tepid and the pendulum appeared to be swinging in the opposite direction. That vote has now been postponed.

French President Hollande, who had hitherto been especially hawkish, announced September 6th that France would await the report of the UN weapons inspectors before deciding upon whether or not to participate in any military action.

A day later, in a joint statement 28 EU foreign ministers followed suit.

The diplomatic momentum quickened radically at a news conference September 9th, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set out some concrete conditions for averting a strike. However inadvertent, his offhand remarks may have been the game changer. In a classic strategic counter-stroke, Russia seized the opportunity to assert its leadership and  quickly brought Syria on board, while President Assad took to the American airwaves in what for him amounted to a charm offensive.

Today, despite some tough sledding,  the permanent members of the UN Security Council are fully engaged  in the search for a binding resolution which would result in Syria surrendering its chemical weapons arsenal to international control and signing the Chemical Weapons Convention.  In a televised address to the nation last night, President Obama, though committed to keeping the military option open, declared that he was open to non-violent alternatives.

In short, although much uncertainty remains and it has been an erratic, and at times confusing passage, the prospects of a Western strike on Syria now seem to be receding.

These are early days yet, but for those who favour talking over fighting as a means to resolve differences in international relations, there are grounds for guarded hope that a corner has been turned.

What better time than the 12th anniversary of 9/11 to reflect on these events, and what it might all mean going forward.

I would suggest three potentially positive outcomes.

While the situation in Syria remains dreadful, there has never been any reason to believe that the sort of outside intervention being contemplated in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons would have tipped the scales against Assad. Intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded disastrous consequences, and at best a mixed picture in Libya. This time around, it may just be possible that West will be spared the devastating blowback associated with the miscalculation of joining one side in a civil war. Perhaps the democratic will of the people, rather than the self-serving machinations of special interests will at long last prevail.

Secondly, if the Security Council members can manage to finesse a resolution which attracts broad  support, then the way will be cleared for the UN to collect, audit and ultimately destroy Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and their components. Given the many other festering global issues not amenable to unilateral or bi-lateral resolution, that kind of result would represent a major political gain for multilateralism, and at a most opportune time. In the emerging heteropolar world order,  power is once again on the move and its sources are diverging.  With no single country or bloc able to impose its will, collective action will increasingly represent the only path to progress.

Finally, if a settlement is reached it will once again have demonstrated the enduring utility of diplomacy as a non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise. In a world beset by a multiplicity of perils for which there are no military solutions – climate change, diminishing biodiversity, pandemic disease – international political performance  must be improved.  If our long-term survival on this small planet is to be ensured, equitable and sustainable development rather than hard power must become the basis of security, and diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

After 12 calamitous years pursuing an unwinnable Global War on Terror, it is time to turn the page.

In closing, it must be asked: where is Canada in all of this?


While some commentators have suggested that there may be a role for this country, so far our contribution has been limited to providing moral support for the use of force, making provocative, unfriendly remarks about the President Putin and Russian policy, and offering to accept 1300 Syrian refugees.

By way of contrast, Germany plans to resettle 5,000 displaced Syrians, and, in the face of epic need, Sweden has offered Syrian nationals blanket asylum.

Canada – the one-time helpful fixer, honest broker, generous aid donor and innovative internationalist – has today morphed into something quite different.

Pearson would weep.