Arguments for and against intervention in Syria follow a wearying pattern, but Brazil offers a breath of fresh air in a multipolar world.
It is difficult to follow the current debate about "humanitarian intervention" in Syria without being struck by the wearying familiarity of so many of the arguments. Virtually the same points knocked back and forth last year, over Libya, and before that over Darfur, and then a list of crises stretching back to Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s.
What is also striking is how its protagonists routinely talk past one another, assuming the worst possible motives of their opponents and rarely acknowledging the other side might occasionally have a point. If you are opposed to an intervention – no matter how impractical or counter-productive – you are a cowardly appeasing, racist who does not care about suffering in the affected country. If you support it – in any circumstances – you are a neocon imperialist with the white phosphorous of Fallujah on your hands.
During her visit to Washington this week, Brazil's president, Dilma Rouseff, raised the hope that another type of debate is possible. Brazil has moved from dictatorship to democracy within the collective memory of most Brazilians. Rousseff herself was imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship. Brazilians can therefore look at events such as the Arab spring, the reawakening of democracy in Burma or events in Zimbabwe, Haiti and Mali with personalised affinity.
At her first speech to the UN general assembly, last November, Rousseff raised the concept of a "responsibility while protecting". Her government followed this up with a position paper, setting out what this might mean in practice. The Economist this week dismissed the document arguing that: "Even some experienced and sympathetic diplomatic observers in Brasília say they have no idea what concrete difference this would make on the ground" and it is true that it rather fudges of how and when the UN security council should authorise the tactical use of force. Nevertheless the same could be said of the original "responsibility to protect" (R2P) document, that the interventionists promoted. The Brazilian paper's real significance may be in showing how its own diplomacy is developing.
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