The Syrian Détente. Is This the End of the Unipolar Moment?


In his famous 1990 essay in Foreign Affairs, Charles Krauthammer had declared that the unipolar moment had arrived. He had listed a few reasons to support his argument; there was no challenging power, nor was there likely any in the few decades, there was no power dispersion at the international level at that moment, the former Soviet Union’s capacity was in a decline. Thus, Krauthammer emphasised, at that time there was no first-rate power in the world that could match the capacity of the US. Of course, when Krauthammer argued the unipolar moment was there, he was realistic enough in arguing against its perpetuity when he said that other powers were bound to rise. Now when the Syrian crisis has been averted the way it was, the big question is whether this is the next big transition in the international order. In other words, is the unipolar moment over and is it the time for revival of a new international order based on multi-polarity and what it means for the international relations.


Russia remains one of the few friends that Syria’s Assad regime has in contemporary international relations, particularly since it got engulfed in a fierce bloodbath in the aftermath of the Arab Spring of early 2011. Syria has been in news for all the wrong reasons and Russia has been at the receiving end of criticism for its near unrelenting support to the suppressive regime. In August this year, in an attack that killed more than 300 people, the Syrian government forces allegedly used chemical weapons against its own citizens. Following this, the US had issued threats of aerial strikes on the Syrian chemical and bio-weapons storage sites. Earlier, on more than one occasion, Russia, alongside China, had opposed UNSC Resolutions on Syria that would have brought economic sanctions against the Assad regime. This time around, when the threat of use of force looked ostensibly imminent and real, Russia came around, initiated, and guided a deal, whereby Syria would disclose its chemical and biological weapons stockpile with immediate effect, which it did, and secondly, abiding by OPCW’s CWC mandate, commit to destroy it in a time-bound manner.


For observers of international relations, Russia’s positive role on averting the escalation of the Syrian crisis is certainly a pleasant and welcome step. Many commentaries and articles noted this development with the headlines like “Russia is back”, and “the Russian Empire strikes back”. Russia is not exactly back yet since even if its economy is reviving, it is still far from the heydays of the former Soviet Union and is yet to develop a niche as an economic leader. The Russian revival, as it were, in international relations is on the back of its goodwill with  Assad. One grouse that remains is that Russia did not use this friendliness to eliminate or at least reduce the quantum of violence and destruction in Syria in the two years since the violence began, nor did it use it to tone down Assad’s aggressive posturing on Israel and Syria.


Whatever is the case, the Russian revival and the American willingness to stop at the threat of use of force for the moment means that there are signs of revival of constructive international relations that was lost in the days of unipolarity. In those days, insecurity and questions of “what if” have acted as guiding principles or primarily pre-emptive defence strategy. It also brought with it ample criticism for the adventurist militarism and nearly killed the charm of the sole superpower and led to its relative decline as well. Therefore, its demise was inevitable. Unipolarity might have died in peacefully resolving the Syrian crisis but its demise began with the ­trillion-dollar wars that have been unpopular at home and abroad alike and with the economic crises that wiped out the capacity for such wars. Equally important in this transition has been the willingness of the contemporary American leadership to not engage in a conflict with no clear goals. In other words, multipolarity is being facilitated also by the reigning-in of the imperial overstretch as the US is not likely to assume the role of global marshal by default. The revised prospects of US-Iran rapprochement only adds to this belief. On the other hand, the rise of other powers has acted as a balancer in the international order. Whether or not this change leads to the revival of multilateralism in the global security structure is hard to tell yet but it is a good sign for the the UN and the Security Council.


It can be argued that the end of unipolarity is not all that bad news for the US since in the new emergent international order, the US still retains its pre-eminence but without the sense of insecurity that the unipolar moment brought with it. Therefore, if anything, its sense of security should rise. What it means for international relations is that the US is less likely to engage unilaterally in a situation like Iraq of 2003-04. In addition, as the largest contributor to the UN budget and with its largest defence spending, the US’s centrality would remain untouched for decades to come.


Looking at this scenario from the prism of Indian national security, this is a welcome development. Accustomed to its middle role, unipolarity has looked and felt like anarchy to New Delhi, like to most other such powers elsewhere; especially when it was expected to share a bigger responsibility than its capacity allowed. In addition, for India, the other side of the coin has been the rise of China. It has been the most significant driver, real or perceived, of the Indian geostrategic overtures in Asia in the last decade. The re-imagination of multipolarity could help stabilise Asian geopolitics in the future and save it from becoming the next theatre of the Great Power game. In particular, this could ease the pressure on military spending if ideas of multilateralism and institutionalism were to revive. This would be a crucial step especially as the Indian economy finds it hard to catch up. 


So far, the Syrian détente has been a near perfect story of creating win-win situations for all. Extending it to larger international relations would only help assuage fears of anarchy and to that extent, it would be an important step towards moving beyond the unipolar moment.

Author Note
Author is Research Assistant with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He was Fox Fellow at the MacMillan Centre Yale in 2007-08. Views expressed here are personal.