The conflict known as World War 2 (officially starting with the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939, even though many parts of the world was already at war years before that date) is without a doubt the most brutal war (in terms of sheer number of people killed) in the history of the world. It is without surprise that all nations touched by that war had learned a harsh lesson from that war. What is debatable, however, is whether that learned lesson is the same for each participant. I claim that the answer is most certainly ‘no’, and most importantly, the two most powerful nations in the world today learned drastically different lessons.
If the United States learned anything from WW2, it is that if you leave a dangerous despot in charge for too long, you are only giving him enough time to build up his forces to wreck even greater damage later. In other words, the US learned that non-interventionist policies lead to large scale conflict. I remember in our schools, this specific point was made against Neville Chamberlain. If we let a ‘Hitler’ build a powerful autocratic regime for too long, we will face a devastating war. This explains the subsequent US response to the USSR and can be used to explain the Vietnam War, both Iraq Wars, and the war in Afghanistan. These are all manifestations of a ‘preemptive strike’ doctrine, designed to remove dangerous enemy leaders before they are strong enough to pose a serious threat. The USA has used this tactic in less inspiring ways, including the removal of democratically elected socialist leader Salvadore Allende in Chile.
What China learned is that if social order collapses and internal conflict erupts, the nation will be too weak and exhausted to face foreign threats appropriately. Therefore, it has since emphasized social order and national unity above all else in the last seventy years. Interestingly, China did not surmise that the reason Japan was able to invade China so successfully and so devastatingly is because China failed to strike first, but that China was so weak that Japan saw it as an opportunity. Despite its bitter history, China never devised a doctrine of first-strike against would-be opponents. Indeed, China’s foreign policy is almost entirely non-interventionist.
Arguably, China and the USA are the two biggest voices on the United Nations Security Council, who is charged with resolving conflicts like the Syrian conflict. Because of the vastly divergent views of the two most dominant members (not to mention both hold veto power), it is unlikely the UNSC will adopt any tangible action that will actually lead to any reasonable solution. Indeed, what a ‘solution’ might look like will be very different for the two nations.
The Untied States’s desired solution would be: remove Bashar Al-Assad from power, implement a ‘moderate’ (i.e. western leaning) government who will oversee democratic elections, then deployment of western forces to prop up the system, then begin the work of rebuilding the country. However, the removal of the ‘bad regime’ is extremely important desired consequence for the US. The other things are of lesser priority.
China’s desired solution would be to supply the current government with resources to combat their enemies (either western leaning or not), ensure stability, and no foreign troops deployed. At the end of the day, the Assad regime would remain and the country would go back to the way it was before the civil war started five years ago.
In terms of ending the current crisis, both solutions reach the immediate goal of stopping the hemorrhaging of refugees from Syria, but the final outcomes are complete polar opposites. Public opinion in the west will never support China’s solution, so the only possibility is a UNSC stalemate and a weakly worded resolution that ‘condemns’ the actions of various vague parties.
If this conflict is to be stopped, then one side has to win. If every group of combatants is getting weapons and supplies because someone they are ideologically aligned with is willing to supply them, the conflict will never end and the root problem never addressed, until the one group of fighters that are the most dedicated and most fanatical comes out on top. If the history of China is anything of a guide, that group is not necessarily the most well equipped. The most tenacious and dedicated faction will come out on top, and that faction is likely the one where they are not fighting for money but for some ideology, however deranged it is. By that of course I mean the Islamic State.
So if the world’s two superpowers will not yield, they might both lose big time to their most dangerous common enemy. In the sake of both country’s national interests and for the broader interests of humanity, it is important that at least one side is willing to back off. However, the US has been expecting the world to ‘compromise’ to their desired solution for so long, with China being fed up with this for decades, that this is an unlikely scenario.