The Chemistry of Power

“International Politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power”
Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (2006, p.26)

As the world watched with shock and horror the terrible aftermath of a Syrian chemical attack in which a civilian population was targeted, the United States and France decided to take firm action against the President of Syria, Bashar Al Assad who was widely suspected of having ordered the attack, despite some European opposition. Then, Russia came onto the stage and suggested that the attack should be investigated by the United Nations while stating that any action could prove dangerous given its uncertainty, especially when it wasn’t clear who the attacker was and where the chemical weapons had come from.

Russia suggested the United Nations as a means to put an end to the crisis, thus pushing that same organization to be the one in charge of destroying the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons. This leads us to the first conclusion: that International Institutions continue to be the most important actors in managing a crisis of this kind due to their ability to resist the power and influence of the States  and to arbitrate their actions in the International System – at least to a Liberal mind. The second conclusion is that Russia was making efforts to keep the peace and stability of a region; a very complicated region and one in which many States have interests in the outcome of the Syrian conflict (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, namely), and saving Syria a merciless and cruel war that would be unleashed by the United States (though let’s not miss the irony here).

However, both perceptions are inaccurate, for Liberals and new fans of the Russian President.

First because of what has been going on in Syria over the past two years and within the UN, has allowed us to witness how the struggle for power among the Great Powers occurs on the international stage in which Institutions are just another scenario besides the battlefield where the strategic usage of geography in hand with military assets is key. Mearsheimer (1995) reminds us that institutions reflect the distribution of Power in the world and are therefore the sons of the calculations and interests of the Great Powers, having no real effect on their behavior. But wait, didn’t the USA back down their military intervention after a UN decision and after an agreement within the UN?

Actually it was more the cunning strategic moves made by Russia – appealing to the world’s public opinion – and the advantage it took from the lack of strategic vision of the current Obama administration rather than the sole action of the UN itself. It actually took the UN as a means to gain the lion share on this case. Also, these moves meant that Russia made a strong usage of a Policy of Prestige, which according to Morgenthau (2006) is another means for struggling for power, and in which the idea is, as pointed out before, to make the others to have a positive image and using the UN as a tool for that. The very resourceful utilization of the word “peace”, or at least its meaning, was in the lines of the speeches made by the Russian Head of State, even warning that an attack would prove no use and could be a big mistake that could lead to a great instability in both Syria and the Middle East. But at the same time it was deploying some naval assets – three landing ships, a reconnaissance ship, an anti – submarine ship, a frigate and even a guided – missile cruiser (the “Moskva”) – in front of the Syrian coasts in a very convenient way after the US declared its intentions to intervene in Syria. It is also worthwhile to mention that some assets such as the frigate and the anti – submarine ship are platforms for antisubmarine warfare, capable to attack the submarines that the US would have used to launched cruise – missiles against the Syrian air – defences.

Secondly, because Russia has strategic interests in Syria; not only is it one of the few remaining allies it has abroad – a legacy from the Cold War – but also because Russia, from the times of the Czars and even during the Soviet Regime, always looked for warm water harbours that could improve the strategic situation of Russia as well as to break down its disadvantage in what concerns to open seas accessibility and being able to exert its projection to the Mediterranean Sea and even towards the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. And in the land aspect, to have a foot placed in the Middle East and countervail the high presence and influence of the USA in the Region, though it can’t do so as much as it was able to do during the Cold War.

Moreover, Russia has economic interests as well, involving arms sales and contracts for around $ 4 billion – Mig 29 fighters, S300 Air Defence Systems and other assets – as well as oil, gas, tourism, and infrastructure invesetments that Russia has in the country, according to The Moscow Times (02 September 2011).

If anything, the halt of the American and French attack to secure the Syrian chemical weapons as a result of the Russian maneouvres at the UN shows how a Great Power like Russia is capable to use an International Organization – or an Institution – to play for its own benefit and protect an ally which is a very beneficial one both strategically and economically. Far from being the peace seeker nation, Russia is a very cold and calculating player of the Great Powers game; it effectively protected both its interests and its ally by using the UN to do so, aided by some strategic weaknesses of the Obama Administration, and proved that Institutions like the UN fulfill with what Mearhseimer states, that: “those are the mere reflection of the Great Powers’ interests and are another kind of arena in which their struggle for Power takes places, as well as the – strategic – weapons of choice.”

*Cover image ‘Russia Veto Against Any UN Decisions Against Toppling Assad is Like Resuscitating The Dead!’ by Freedom House

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