A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up a shooting position in Salah al-Din neighbourhood in central Aleppo.
The now defused crisis of threatened US-led military strikes on Syria raised once again the difficult question of how America's allies should deal with its wars of choice rather than necessity. Should the US be under armed attack, Australia would spontaneously, wholeheartedly, unreservedly respond to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with it, as it should.
In an unequal alliance relationship, the same does not hold in reverse: the guarantor may not always find it expedient to come to the military defence of client-state allies. So it is in our twin interest to create a world in which the use of force by major powers is tightly fettered by the constraints of law; and to ensure if we are attacked, the US has the military muscle and political will to defend it.
Actions that damage global norms and weaken US capacity-cum-will to deploy military force overseas are doubly damaging to the balance of normative and security interests of allies. Vassal states will support Washington regardless. Good friends will work to rescue the US from self-harm. In retrospect, in Iraq in 2003, France and Germany proved the better long-term allies in trying to stop it, while Australia and Britain chose instant gratification but deferred long-term costs in joining that predetermined march to folly.
The Obama administration was intensely irritated that on an issue and at a time when the ethic of conviction and the ethic of consequences intersect, others refused to support punitive military strikes on Syria. But what the rest of the world saw was policy confusion. Hoary slogans were dragged from the cobwebs of history to suggest that the world was facing ''a Munich moment'' (John Kerry in Paris on September 7) in trying to appease instead of confronting a Hitler-like dictator.
What would have been the point of an ''unbelievably small'' strike? Little wonder that Obama immediately stepped in to say the US military doesn't do ''pinpricks''.
The unbelievably loose talk was exacerbated by almost criminally casual elision of facts on killings. Leading politicians and some analysts and commentators routinely condemned Bashar al-Assad for the massacre of more than 100,000 of his people. That figure represents the total number of people killed in the civil war. The best available estimate breaks it down as: civilians, 40,146; rebels, 21,850; government soldiers, 27,645; pro-regime militias, 17,824; others/unknown, 2897; total, 110,371.
The administration's difficulties in mobilising public, congressional and global support were compounded by selective indignation seeped in double standards and unproven allegations, lack of clarity on goals and means, and a determination to enforce humanitarian norms inside Syria's sovereign jurisdiction by flouting higher-order global norms on the international use of force. The latter are much more critical to most countries' national security and also to world stability.
In all such cases, Australia is torn between the emotional pull of loyalty to its principal ally, outrage at large-scale civilian killings by a brutal dictator and, in the month it assumed presidency of the UN Security Council, fidelity to UN principles and obligations to promote universal respect for the UN Charter law governing both internal and international use of force.
Geopolitical exposure and a global train of commercial, strategic and environmental interests give Australia a big stake in a rules-based world order. No principle of international law permits one state to attack another to uphold a multilateral treaty. The legal mechanisms and remedies for dealing with alleged crimes of chemical weapons use, even by non-signatories, are set out in the Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1925 Geneva Protocol.
Recourse to these would signify collective determination to uphold the global norm against chemical weapons use and strengthen the treaty regimes. Unilateral strikes, by contrast, would take the world back into the law of the jungle dressed up as international law.
Obama failed to communicate why an attack on Syria was in the US national interest, why it would not damage, instead of upholding,
the principle of international law on interstate relations, how the strikes would weaken Assad without strengthening and emboldening al-Qaeda, how they would protect Christians and other minorities from being attacked by Islamist extremists, and how they would end the vicious civil war.
The Chemical Weapons Convention translates the world's moral repugnance of chemical weapons into a legally binding treaty. Signed by 189 states, it has been in force since 1997. Only five have not signed - Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, and Syria. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified it. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has overseen the verified destruction of more than 80 per cent of the world's declared stockpile of almost 72,000 tonnes of chemical agents. Australia played an influential role in its negotiation and should use its term on the Security Council to promote universalisation of the treaty.
Almost all countries and peoples abhor chemical weapons and support the enforceable ban on their use. But prohibition on the use of military force against other states, except in self-defence, when attacked or under UN authorisation is much more critical to the direct security of Asia-Pacific countries in the shadow of China as it contests US primacy in the Pacific.
Until World War I, going to war was an attribute of sovereign statehood. The only protection against armed attack was to build national defence forces, which increased the risk of a defeat for the potential aggressor and also raised the costs of victory should he win. To reduce international anarchy and cross-border armed conflicts, the society of states moved to limit the right to wage wars in the League of Nations and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact. The UN has spawned a vast corpus of laws to outlaw unilateral wars and create a robust norm against interstate aggression. It is not in the security interest of most states to return to the pre-UN world of constant warfare.
On top of the stake in the normative world order, Australia and all US allies also have selfish interests in ensuring that Washington is able and willing to defend them. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have overextended the US military, made others less fearful of Washington, damaged its financial health and global reputation, made Americans war-weary, and contributed to the rise of neoisolationism. All these consequences are inimical to Australia's security interests of US allies and would have intensified with illegal strikes on Syria. We all owe a vote of thanks to President Vladimir Putin for rescuing Obama from self-harm.
Ramesh Thakur, professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy and The Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation, Challenges and Opportunities.