The forces of democracy and the moral gains of the liberal world order have given way to great-power conflict and the new autocracy, while the Syrian war reveals the unsettling return of ideological conflict, argues Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies:
The post-Cold War era was characterized by widespread hopes that the forces of order and civilization were finally defeating those of aggression and inhumanity; that democracy was becoming truly universal; that great-power competition had vanished; and that the danger of major war was receding further than ever before. …[But] the Syrian conflict reflects the broader authoritarian resurgence at work. President Bashar al-Assad offers the most brutal and ruthless example of how the world’s remaining dictators have not meekly succumbed to the forces of liberalization, but have instead become tougher and more tenacious in clinging to power.
Moreover, the war shows how ideological differences are again driving global politics, adds Brands, the author of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump:
Most of the Western democracies have insisted — rhetorically, at least–that the killing must stop and Assad must go. Yet the world’s leading autocracies — China, Russia and Iran — have rejected the idea of foreign-imposed regime change and provided various forms of assistance to keep a fellow autocrat in power. The competition between authoritarianism and democracy has been renewed, and nowhere has that competition been sharper than in Syria.