Early in President Barack Obama’s first term, there were suggestions that the United States and China could forge a new partnership to manage global affairs. Some commentators argued that a Sino-American “Group of Two” could run the world better than the G-20. It is said that the Obama administration made some version of this proposal to Beijing but was rebuffed. Last week, it suddenly seemed possible that the Syrian crisis could trigger the creation of an alternative G-2, this time involving Russia.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov arrived in Geneva on Thursday for talks on Syria’s chemical weapons, their ostensible goal was to find a multilateral solution to the problem. They discussed how to give the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons access to Syria and revitalize the United Nation’s flagging efforts to mediate an end to the war. Yet, for all this talk of international institutions and processes, Lavrov and Kerry’s meeting sent a clear message: The last remaining path to a deal over Syria was now bilateral bargaining between Moscow and Washington.
By Saturday, Kerry and Lavrov had a framework deal. There has been fierce debate over whether their proposals, which include the destruction of all Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, are workable. What is clear is that Russia and the U.S. are willing to subordinate multilateral diplomacy to bilateral deal-making in an effort to bring the Syrian war under control—even if that leaves other countries alienated.