The current quandary on Syria is a vivid demonstration of the dynamics of a polycentric global power configuration. In my recent email on “A Polycentric Reality”, I wrote: “During a polycentric era, alliances do not work strongly, if at all … the world has a strong non-alignment tendency. Self-interest and influence dictate foreign policies.” Our experience with our traditional allies on Syria, particularly in the case of England, is a reflection of that new reality.
Nations deal with each other on the basis of shared interests and concerns, while simultaneously confronting each other on contradicting objectives. There is no absolute enemies, no absolute friends. Most parties are simultaneously both. Every nation has to balance relations with many other nations, with blocs and groupings weakened if not ill-defined (even NATO is declining to join America on military action against Syria). On one matter, a nation may have to offend another nation, court favors with others, only to reverse roles on another matter.
Understandably, America is not used to a polycentric world, in which ranking order and threat of force are no longer as effective. The rest of the world increasingly ignores our traditional presumption of exceptionalism. We have to be more considerate and learn to be reasonable. That will be a good thing over the long-run, since shaking our fists all the time and talking in hypocritical moral hyperboles will not earn us friends nor enhance our influence in the world.
Obama is a weak leader, indecisive and unwilling to assume responsibility. His weakness is magnified under the polycentric microscope. Since multiple parties are maneuvering in a seemingly disorderly world stage, it takes strong leadership to shape the outcome of issues and events; otherwise, the situation will descend into a complicated quagmire. Thrusting responsibilities onto others while raising the moral rhetorics is probably the worst thing for a leader to do. By contrast, Putin emerges as a far stronger leader, seizing the bull by the horn and affecting the pace of events and controlling the initiative, even if temporarily. He capitalizes on Obama’s hesitancy, buys time to prepare for and consolidate his country’s interests, and makes the world perceive him as someone who offers solution rather than creates problems. He knows his proposal for Syria to give up chemical weapons is a difficult one to implement and will likely result in another indecisive impasse for Obama and the US Congress. But either way, it will be Putin’s triumph and a successful finesse, given the present reality of Russia’s underwhelming military capability.
If some leaders are constantly shifty and indecisive in the current polycentric reality, the people of the world are very decisive this time, and overwhelmingly voice their resounding “NO” to the habitual war-mongers and arms-merchants priming to show-case their “new products”. That is a pleasant surprise. Hopefully, the decisiveness of the American people will guide the country onto the right path, in which case a weak president may yet turn out to be a good thing.