09/15/2013 11:44 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Democracy Failed Syria's Refugees, and All of Us

So, after all that dialogue and brinksmanship, we can now admit the truth: the Syrian refugees are on their own. So let's stop pretending. The two million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, and some four million remain internally displaced. The numbers are simply staggering -- the largest since the Rwandan crisis of the early 1990s.

For all the bluster, the diplomacy, the brinksmanship, and the supposed deal with the Russians, these refugees are no further to reaching security than they were a week ago. They are the afterthought, the inevitable consequence of the ineffectiveness of the region and the Arab League to solve its own problems.

But there's more, and we might as well face it. It could well be that democracy is on the decline around the world. The democratic impulse inherent in the Arab Spring might have met its match early from the authoritarian responses in many of the countries in which it erupted. For those looking to the United Nations for action, it remains a difficult thing to spot the democratic impulse if an archaic veto can be utilized whenever convenient.

For the developed world, the present Syrian crisis has revealed some serious fault lines. For the first time in a generation the decision of whether or not to launch military intervention has not been arbitrarily decided by leaders but instead passed off to legislative assemblies. The results have been decidedly mixed.

Opening things up to the democratic impulse is all well and good, but what if it refuses to endorse decisions already agreed to in previous times? The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was approved by numerous countries and endorsed by the United Nations. Do we just toss that aside now? If democratic citizens in the West refuse to support military intervention, as is their right, then what of their more noble aspirations of defending the victims of war or genocide? If we have truly reached an era where citizens are tired of military solutions, then the door should be open to moving resources from the military option to development, aid and human rights.

Yet even in this, citizens of the West have endorsed governments that have continued to curtail international development funds and goals established by those same nations when they agreed to the Millennial Development Goals as a means of fighting global poverty.

So if aid is on the decline and we refuse to intervene where human injustice is prevalent, what's left? We are forced to admit that little in our institutional framework as Western democracies is inclined to make the kind of decisions that represent our highest aspirations.

We shouldn't be surprised. Our belief in politics is at an all-time low, as is voter turnout in many countries. We seem frozen in time when it comes to troubling developments such as climate change or the rapid widening gap between the rich and the poor. Democracy seems incapable at the moment of meeting its most serious challenges at the same time as leaders and the media content themselves with covering the intrigues of politics, entertainment and finance.

At times like this the story of the Syrian refugees takes on a special significance. Their fate comes to represent not the best in us, but the complacent. We seem to be losing the ability to fight, to gather, to organize, to defend, or even to vote. Do we honestly regard such developments as the hope for democracy? Our modern world has become more a story of the wealthy, the corporate elite, the dictators, and the superstars -- none of whom have any credible interest in democracy. They neither require it nor seek to assist it. So it's up to us -- average citizens -- but at present we seem incapable of pulling ourselves together in great enough numbers to rescue our democratic estate from enemies both global and domestic.

Sometime in the future, historians will research and write about how the Syrian crisis was all about politics, pragmatism, diplomacy and lack of resolve. The refugees themselves will be but part of a larger narrative of how the great democracies of the age lost their birthright on the road to complacency.

Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images)