The double veto against the Arab League-initiated and West-driven resolution on Syria blows open the power struggle between the west and new powers led by China and Russia in the Security Council. It suggests that there is more than meets the eye in terms of the extent of division at the centre of global power. This presents both opportunities and risks for emerging regions like Africa.
On Saturday morning, the UN Security Council chambers saw intense shuttle diplomacy. The draft resolution initiated by Morocco last week on behalf of the Arab League, which displaced the draft that Russia had initiated a week earlier, was due for a vote. On that morning, Russia convened a closed meeting of country representatives to consider its proposed amendments. After just an hour the meeting dissolved and diplomats headed for the chambers for voting on the draft resolution without amendments that Russia requested.
It is now history that Russia and China vetoed the resolution, causing a huge uproar in the west mainly. The US ambassador to the Council, Susan Rice stood out as the most annoyed of all. She is reported to have said that she was "disgusted that a couple of Council members" had prevented the body from acting decisively to protect Syrians from the Al-Assad regime’s attacks.
She dismissed the dissenters' arguments as "hollow" and amendments proposed as "wrecking." The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, described the vetoes as "travesty" and Obama said this would stop it from working towards an outcome where Assad will leave power.
The disagreements between those who voted for and those who voted against the resolution are not many. Although they seem to be about the text of the draft resolution, they actually are about fundamental differences on the very idea of responsibility to protect that the UN Security Council is charged with.
On listening to and reading the explanations of both sides on the disagreements three key factors come up. The first is that the Russians and the Chinese wanted to close any space for interpreting the resolution as a sanction for regime change in Syria, a development that after Libya would be regarded as a trend-setter for application anywhere and everywhere.
The second one is the idea of even-handedness in security analysis. They are worried that in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the resolution was selected parts of the Arab League report that point to violence by the Syrian state and deliberately omitted violence by the opposition. They feared that this was a question of giving the dog a bad name in order to kill him.
The third, explaining their attitude to the use of a veto before the actual vote the Russian ambassador insisted that the veto, which they fought for, is used only to protect minorities in the UN from abuse by global powers using war to advance their own interests. But the US, UK and France thought that Russia sought to protect its business with Syria.
Africa may become a spectator in developments that are helping to shape the new global order that may be born in the coming decades. It has come to a point where the ructions that preceded and followed the Syria resolution suggest deep cleavages amongst the veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council at the time when the balance of power generally is shifting in favour of the east and south in global affairs.
The divisions are so deep that it seems unlikely that the two sides will ever work together on major international security questions. This does suggest that world is changing in ways that makes it even more complex than it has been since 1945 and that there will be a need for new sources of reason and consensus globally.
This presents risks for Africa. The region might become a mere stooge in the power game with both sides posing as defenders when they have their eyes on the proverbial global cake. The region may also be completely marginalised as a smaller player in global power games when a majority of security questions before the Council are actually on African issues. Africa may become a spectator in developments that are helping to shape the new global order that may be born in the coming decades.
But with the numbers of UN member states that Africa has and being the only region that is set to grow economically and demographically for the next four decades, Africa can benefit from the stalemate in the following ways: if it positions itself as a power broker, it can get both sides to support its developmental agenda to win its support. It can also build relations with both based on comparative advantages each has to offer. It can shift the foci of global power to regions rather than states thereby strengthening the hand of collective states over powerful individual states.
But to do so, Africa needs an internally strong centre in Addis Ababa led by strong leaders backed by capable states. This makes the recent election contests for the AU chair position all the more timely. But the contest’s outcome must be the strongest candidate Africa can find and a sharp focus on firming up the agenda for an independent, efficient and relevant African Union.