What does the Syria vote mean?

Last night’s vote by the UK Parliament to reject a government motion to clear the way for punitive action against Hafez Assad’s regime in Syria feels like a very important moment in British politics. It is a small but decisive step away from Britain’s centuries-old role as a Great Power on the world stage. This has good and bad aspects.

The vote itself has divided opinion among in my social network. The less political of them, including my liberal leaning but unpolitical friend at the gym this morning, are very happy. A depressing chain of events that started with Tony Blair’s joining of the Iraq war has reached an end. But many of my Lib Dem Facebook contacts are very unhappy: who will restrain President Assad’s regime now? But just as many share the views of my friend at the gym.  I find my feelings very mixed. I do not want this country to take sides in this conflict; but the thought that Mr Assad’s government will take comfort from it is not a comfortable one.

But what will non-Britons make of this episode? It doesn’t seem to be all that important. The real power is with the United States; Britain’s military capacity is puny by comparison. This debate is not being had in many other countries, from the economic powerhouses of German and Japan, to other world powers such as Brazil or India. Only our French neighbours are weighing up the same issues, apart from America, and, in a different way, Russia. It all seems to be more about maintaining the status of our political elite than something that a third rank world power should be concerning itself with. It will be more difficult now for that elite to maintain its delusions of grandeur.

In one way this a good thing. The expense of the country maintaining this world status is increasingly unsustainable, as cutbacks to the armed forces show. There have been successful military interventions: in Kosovo, Libya and Sierra Leone. And places were we probably should have intervened but didn’t: Bosnia and Rwanda. But the results of the bigger interventions, Iraq and Afghanistan, are at best ambiguous. Syria looks more like the latter, though the government has been trying to limit the scope of any intervention. The judgement of our political leaders and the civil servants and military men that back them up has not proved particularly sound. And successful small interventions only encourage them to think bigger. We are now facing up to a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world.

But there is also a dark side. It is not good if a country turns in itself, and does not want to accept the implications of being part of a bigger world. There is a strong undercurrent of this in Britain: from anti-immigrant feeling to criticism of foreign aid, as well as resistance to taking part in the European Union. But the country’s fate is more bound up than ever by what goes on in the rest of the world, and far too often this sort of isolationism leads to paranoia and conflict.

Personally I would like to see Britain take further steps back from its pretension to a world role: giving up the country’s seat on the Security Council and our nuclear weapons. But I would also like the country to take part in military interventions if these are needed, especially in Europe and (perhaps) Africa. But we need new ways of going about this, and a clearer idea about when and how we go about it. I hope last night’s vote is a step along the path to a better way.

2 thoughts on “What does the Syria vote mean?”

  1. If we agree that international interference is part of our moral duty (which I do), the question then is – what form should that interference take? Military interference is maybe sometimes necessary, but I would have thought that it is always and indication that we got to the problem too late.

    Interference is surely much better in the form of help rather than violence. I have strong reservations about the idea that nations have integrity. People have integrity. If people have confidence in their government (election does not guarantee this) then to deal with a government is to deal with its people. But where the people did not choose and do not like their government, then I don’t see why humanitarian concerns should not cross international boundarys, despite governments.

    Easier said than done, I know. All I want to put forward is the idea that aid in times of peace (with a few strings?) may be the best way of preventing the need for violence. I have no idea of the how. Is the likes of the EU part of the solution?

    1. This is quite hard, but I think the legacy of “realpolitik” or “geopolitics” is a heavy one. This sees the driving force behind a country’s foreign policy being the promotion or protection of their “interests”. This was all the rage in the 19th century, took a big knock in the first world war, and then took off again in the Cold War. Some countries are firmly in the grip of this thinking, like Russia and China, but I think we are very confused. If we can move forward with a higher moral tone and be more clearly for making the world a better place this would ultimately promote a better world. A lot of the current problems, not least in Syria, have their roots in Western realpolitik in the colonial era.

      But intervention is hard. It doesn’t usually work well for foreigners to take over the running of a country. And even undemocratic governments are often felt to be legitimate by most of their inhabitants. Unfortunately effective military intervention often does mean taking over the running of a country.

      You are right that it is much better to prevent problems than intervene militarily when they get out of hand. Perhaps the world needs a failed state fund, that can take over countries whose governments have collapsed for one reason or another, and move forward a transition programme. Transnational organisations, like the UN and the EU could give this legitimacy.

      I am less sure about aid, given its very patchy record. It clearly has a role in alleviating the ill effects of policy. Preventing violence is about persuading elites not to abuse power. Aid can help, or can just create trough for bad people to feed at and exclude others. It may be better to reward better governments through symbols of status and respectability – but we’d have to be very disciplined about that!

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