The UK parliament’s wake-up call to Prime Minister David Cameron scuppered the prospects of a British armed response to the chemical attacks in Syria. It must have felt like a cold, wet flannel—not just to Cameron, but to anyone speculating on the UK’s wider role in the world. Much has been said about the down-sides of this turn of events, but what of the up-sides?
The false reasons that took us into the Iraq War have undoubtedly induced the more sober attitude now being taken in Westminster and Washington; a more careful, more thoughtful, more realistic posture. By deflating Western hubris about its presumed right to always take the lead in world affairs, the UK parliament may, moreover, have created an opportunity for the West to look, now, to other nations—notably to Russia and China—to play a greater role. After all, both call for a greater say in world affairs that more closely matches their economic power. Maybe it is time, then, to let them have it? If we expected them to take greater responsibility, either by taking some positive action on Syria, or by criticising them for their inaction and the succour it gives to a brutal regime, the effect might be cathartic.
This might seem both a naïve and heartless way to respond to helpless civilians suffering and dying in Damascus and Aleppo as we speak. But the West needs to realise that it cannot—and should not—always be in the driving seat. By letting China and Russia take a more prominent role in global affairs, and by allowing them to feel the heavy responsibility of leadership and the inevitable blunders it will lead them into, we may at least spur their citizens to more forcefully hold their leaders to account, not only for their actions abroad, but at home. After all, neither country is any longer a hermetically sealed society. Their citizens use social media and smartphones too. So by letting Russia and China share the limelight, we may just be spurring their citizens to start sharing with us the heavy burden of keeping our hubris-prone leaders in line.