Rising Democracies Take on Russia and China

Moscow and Beijing vetoing the UN resolution on Syria was not surprising. Rising democracies supporting it was.

The Security Council’s recent failure to condemn Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown in Syria after months of attacks against unarmed civilians would suggest the case is hopeless. Russia and China vetoed a resolution proposing a process for a negotiated transition to democracy despite full backing from the usually anti-interventionist Arab League. The stalemate raises perennial questions about the international community's ability to respond to crises, the legitimacy of the veto power and the doctrine of responsibility to protect that underpinned intervention in Libya. The Syria vote, however, may have strengthened what appears to be an increasingly common view among the world's emerging democracies: dictators determined to stay in power at any cost are no longer tolerable.

The double veto has made international action in Syria all the more difficult. But it also shows that Russia and China are increasingly isolating themselves from a widening consensus that human-rights violations demand an international response. In one corner, established and newer democracies, more attuned to their voters at home, are under pressure to support movements for universal rights. In the opposite corner, China and Russia are silencing domestic dissent at home while trying to prop up comparable autocrats abroad. This divide became abundantly clear when India and South Africa disassociated themselves from their usual affiliates (BRICS) to support the Security Council resolution on Syria. Brazil likely would have joined its democratic cohorts if it were still on the council.

Rising Great Powers?

Rising democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa, along with their counterparts Turkey and Indonesia, are beginning to stand up for human rights in ways that may reshape the international system. India, Brazil and South Africa already self-identify as IBSA, explicitly invoking their democratic identity to differentiate themselves from Russia and China. Adding Turkey and Indonesia—large Muslim-majority democracies—to the group we call IBSATI would further distinguish these states as examples of developing democracies that, unlike Russia and China, have made remarkable economic progress while also expanding the rights of their citizens.

Cooperation with IBSATI and other like-minded democracies, however, requires some skillful diplomacy. We know from their response to the Arab Spring and other democratic transitions that the IBSATI powers share several characteristics when it comes to supporting political reforms in their respective regions and beyond. All five have made unequivocal commitments to democratic and human-rights standards both as a goal of national development and as a principle of their foreign policies. This shared starting point offers an opportunity to find common ground with each other and with more established democracies.

A wide gap exists, however, regarding the preferred methods of international action in this arena. The IBSATI states have a strong preference for softer tools of international intervention: what they call constructive engagement, mediation, quiet diplomacy and dialogue. In contrast, the established democracies are quicker to pursue condemnation, sanctions and even military action in extreme cases such as Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. As members of the Security Council during the Libya intervention, Brazil, India and South Africa wavered between measured support for and skepticism toward military action. But they did not block Western efforts to intervene. They did, however, strongly object to NATO's quick transition to a regime-change strategy, an approach that sowed the seeds for the current impasse over Syria. Even though they endorsed the recent resolution on Syria, India and South Africa had balked at earlier attempts to condemn the killings. They pushed successfully to dilute the text to avoid even implied authorization of force, instead stressing the importance of an inclusive, Syrian-led dialogue for political transition.

IBSATI's preference for mediation and dialogue over intervention can be explained in part by their own domestic narratives. Each country's history of overcoming authoritarian, military, racist and/or colonial legacies—which were directly supported or abetted by Western powers—in favor of constitutional democracy does not translate into unquestioned support for international interventions to protect democracy and human rights. The memory of external impositions and Western endorsement of odious regimes runs deep. The ghost of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq also endures. This leads policy makers in IBSATI countries to prioritize principles of national sovereignty and nonintervention and to oppose traditional means of "regime change" in favor of peaceful, mediated or longer-term processes of change. During the recent Security Council vote on Syria, India and South Africa repeatedly expressed respect for Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.