The Realist Prism: On Syria, Sovereignty Comes First for Southern Democracies

The Realist Prism: On Syria, Sovereignty Comes First for Southern Democracies

The decision this week by Russia and China to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its use of violence against its domestic opponents has attracted much attention -- and opprobrium. What has generated less discussion is the fact that the three states of the IBSA bloc -- India, Brazil and South Africa -- abstained from the vote. But their unwillingness to support the resolution has clear implications both for the future of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine as well as for America's own relationships with the rising democracies of the South.

Certainly notions of anti-imperialism and "Third World solidarity" help to provide some context for their decision to abstain. India, which for decades played a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement; South Africa, which is ruled by the African National Congress; and Brazil, which is looking to establish its own distinct global presence: None of the three were predisposed to automatically rally behind a resolution sponsored by the Western powers. But these three democracies' reluctance to sanction an authoritarian regime that is increasingly relying on repressive violence to retain its hold on power has a far deeper root.

China's distaste for taking action against the Syrian regime, and its willingness to support the Russian position, is explained by Beijing's own experiences with protesters seeking to change the status quo -- notably the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But New Delhi, Brasilia and Pretoria have similar concerns. India, for instance, is engaged in an ongoing battle with a number of different insurgencies and organized crime groupings across the subcontinent. The Maoist Naxalite insurgency in central and eastern India, which has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians over the past two decades, has been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." Brazil has stepped up efforts to regain control of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and other major cities, especially before the spate of world sporting events the country is scheduled to host later this decade. This has included using the military to take down the gangs that for years have enjoyed sanctuary in these "brown zones," where the writ of the Brazilian state has been nonexistent. South Africa has successfully undergone the transition from white minority rule, but significant ethnic and class divisions still percolate and threaten the state's stability.

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