After the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia may emerge as a more confident player in the geopolitical arena.

U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 Summit. Photo: Reuters

Russia’s G20 presidency, which includes the St. Petersburg summit on September 5-6, has generally been a success – although this outcome was far from guaranteed nine months ago when Russia took over from Mexico as the head of the G20. This is a group that has been muscling up institutionally and starting to outweigh the G8 – the traditional center for setting the global economic regulation agenda.

The G20’s most important economic decisions

Russia’s presidency of this influential forum of the world’s largest economies has coincided with a turnaround in the development of the global political and economic system. With the global financial and economic crisis behind us, the planet’s leading economies are devising “the rules of the game” for the long haul.

The key issues of the “post-crisis era” are: economic growth and acceptable stimulus tools; fiscal consolidation; foreign exchange policies and abandoning of competitive currency devaluations; and viewing employment as not only a socio-economic, but also a political problem threatening the stability of the planet’s richest nations.

Russia’s presidency proved to be professional on all of those matters, and as a result, the outcome of the summit was a success. While the decisions made at the G20 are not binding, most of them fit in the TINA – ‘there is no alternative’ – framework. There was no way around making those decisions; Russia formulated them, and its G20 partners approved.

Some of the most important decisions on the summit’s economic agenda were as follows:

– A formal acknowledgement of the fact that an inevitable transition from quantitative easing to a conventional monetary policy must take place smoothly in all twenty countries. Monetary tightening should not undermine economic growth – if anything, it should make it sustainable and driven by financial system development and currency stability;

– Approval of a joint action plan to fight tax base erosion and tax evasion;

– Selection of 40 credit institutions (banks and insurance companies) that cannot be allowed to fail because their operations are global in nature and, thus, their regulation should not be subject to separate national jurisdictions;

– Approval of medium-term plans for budget deficit reduction and structural reforms for all 20 countries extending to jobs markets, taxation issues, infrastructure upgrades, and commodity market regulations;

– Expanding the range of measures to fight corruption, viewed as a threat to the global economic system that has taken on a truly global scale.

The ‘Syrian Summit’

That said, the summit at the Konstantinovsky Palace near St. Petersburg will go down in history as the “Syrian Summit.” Two irreconcilable positions have collided over the civil war in this small Middle Eastern country, the use of chemical weapons there, and the response of the international community to it. It could be broadly described as a conflict between the proponents of “national sovereignty” and “humanitarian intervention.”

The former group includes all BRICS member countries, as well as a number of European nations and large Muslim states. Their leaders are well aware of what could happen if a complicated surgery were performed using cutlery. Often times, governments find it harder not to act on foreign policy than take decisive steps.

Yet, wise politicians realize that over the long term, inaction proves to be more useful than the desire, popular in the modern world, to let an elephant into a china shop. That’s, of course, if the strategic goal is known. In the case of Syria, the goal is to stop the conflict and safeguard the country as a subject of international relations.

The “interventionist” camp includes the United States and its main allies – France and Turkey - as well as the NATO countries, the Gulf theocracies, and the “semi-state” of Kosovo. The United States hardly deserves to be blamed for a desire to inflame a war in the Middle East.

Apparently, President Barack Obama doesn’t want a war in Syria. But he has become a hostage of his own previous statements (such as describing chemicals weapons as a “red line” for Syria’s ruling regime to cross). That’s why many of the U.S. president’s current steps are forced.

Russian diplomacy’s task is not to interfere with Barack Obama’s complicated game plan – the combination of threatening statements intended for domestic consumption with inaction on using American weapons against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The U.S. partners in the “interventionist” camp are pursuing a different goal – to finally settle scores with Iran by doing in its key regional partner Syria. That’s for starters. Few people in the world don’t realize that pursuing this goal will inevitably lead to a major regional war where chemical weapons will be used too.

The G20’s lessons for diplomacy

Italia’s President the Council of Ministers Enrico Letta, left, U.S. President Barack Obama, center, German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande, at the G20 summit. Photo: G20 Press Photo

The G20 summit has enriched the diplomatic science with empirical material that experts will be analyzing for a long time to come. For instance, Washington changed its position on whether a meeting between the Russian and U.S. presidents would take place five times. U.S. administration officials confirmed a summit twice only to deny it twice subsequently. Eventually the summit did take place, but the White House failed to secure Russia’s public approval for a military operation against Syria.

Such inconsistency of the U.S. position on a bilateral summit with the Russian leader is telling. The Kremlin has succeeded in depriving American diplomacy of a tool that it had considered among the most important ones in its arsenal for decades – giving other countries’ leaders an opportunity to meet the U.S. president face to face and foreign leaders’ readiness to make concessions on the most sensitive matters for their national interests for the sake of such meetings.

By snubbing the G8 summit at Camp David in 2012 and standing his ground on Syria now, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his ability to pursue only his national interests as well as an immunity to external pressure – even in the form of an opportunity to have a one-on-one chat with the U.S. president.

G20: A triumph for the BRICS

The G20 summit has also become a triumph for the BRICS.

Experts are yet to link this victory to the diplomacy of Russia and its partners in that forum – Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. However, it’s worth noting that, having held a separate BRICS summit several hours before the G20 inauguration meeting, all five nations agreed on a common position on Syria. And then they confirmed this position at the G20 summit. This kind of agreement on a common position among the planet’s five biggest emerging economies is the BRICS’s raison d’être.

And such solidarity could increase the clout of the forum down the road, paving the way towards a formal union with a more rigid structure for intergovernmental cooperation.

Mindful that the July 2006 G8 summit in Strelna was a setback for Russia largely because of a powerful campaign of criticism unleashed against Russia, foreign media tried to do the same again. But they far from succeeded. Instead of discussing Syria and the G20 agenda, the Russian leadership was asked to come clean on LGBT rights, ethnic conflicts, immigration, etc. The Russian leadership was wise not to get sucked into those discussions.

The Kremlin’s message could be read as follows: Russia is thankful to international critics for pointing out the shortcomings of its existing legislation and its enforcement practices. Yet nobody in the Kremlin is going to go so far as to question the legitimacy of Russia’s authorities.

In political science, this is called “subject building” – a nation’s acquisition of the ability to act regardless of external influences. Modern Russia is a fully-fledged subject of the international political and economic system. It proved as much at the G20 summit.