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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Tyranny of the Veto: Syria’s Friends at the U.N.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on October 4, 2011, effectively tossing a life preserver, according to the New York Times, to Syria’s president. The toothless proposal would have condemned the Syrian government for its violent crackdown of popular protests in which more than 2,700 had been killed. The proposal’s language had been softened from targeted financial sanctions; the council would merely have been charged with considering unspecified measures after a 30-day period. Two reasons can be cited for the two vetoes: commercial ties and a vested interest in forestalling any more threats to the doctrine of national sovereignty.

The veto-provision itself of the Security Council can be questioned here, as it allows allies to protect even a government that has, in the words of Gérard Araund of the E.U., lost its legitimacy in the world. The New York Times reports that the arms contracts that Russia had with the Syrian government at the time of the vetoes were valued at $4 billion. “Beyond jet fighters and tanks, Russia has varied interests in Syria, like oil and gas and cement.” Russia is Syria’s fifth largest trading partner. Accordingly, Russia’s foreign minister issued a statement condemning extremists in Syria who were engaging in “open terror” through violence. Russia was betting on Assad. Aleksandr Shumilin, director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts, told the media that as “soon as it seems that the opposition has become comparable to [Assad] in strength and there appears a possibility they will win, Russia will change its behavior.” One could add that such a change would occur if and only if Russia’s commercial interests with Syria are threatened. This approach is known as realism in international relations. States pursue their own strategic interests internationally, taking for granted rather than challenging the system of sovereign nation-states that permits realism to be the driver even though it does not take into account the broader public good.

The continued hegemony of the nation-state system and the impact of realism are both evident from the fact that even such a weak proposal could successfully be blocked against a government that had killed over 2,700 unarmed protesters. The message being sent by the U.N. is that a government can use its claim to legitimate force pretty much any way it wants. Put another way, an implication from realism in a nation-state system is that the U.N. is merely a conference, or discussion, without much attention to the broader (i.e., international) system of governance, at least in so far as the Security Council is concerned. We are thus left in a Bodinian/Hobbesian world wherein every government is looking out for its own narrow interests, which allow for governments to turn against their people.

To be sure, opponents of the resolution did have a leg to stand on. They claimed that the no-fly-zone resolution on Libya had been abused by NATO bombing pro-Gadhafi positions even when no civilians were in danger. There was a sense in both Moscow and Beijing that the West had been using economic sanctions and military actions under U.N. auspices to further Western-friendly regime change. According to the New York Times, there “is a sense in both capitals that the West in general, and the United States in particular, is feeding the protest movements in the Arab world to further its own interests.” Both Russia and China are “determined to reassert their long opposition to anything that smacks of domestic meddling by outside powers.” Lest it be thought that this is for the protection of other governments or for national sovereignty as a virtue or ideal, Russia faced outside pressure concerning Chechnya and China has Tibet. In other words, the national sovereignty doctrine is a manifestation of realism, wherein international consensus is the result of narrow national interests rather than a view of the good of the whole.

In defending Assad with the doctrine that ultimately protects them, Russia and China must also deal with the inconsistency in letting Assad get away with his killing spree while Gadhafi had killed less yet been stopped. In other words, why does Gadhafi’s opposition deserve help while those against Assad are “extremists”? If abuse of the Libya resolution by NATO were really the problem, then Russia and China could have insisted that U.N. officials oversee any action to defend Syrian protesters and report regularly to the Council, wherein Russia and China could nullify the resolution by a veto if either government suspected any abuse taking place. In fact, the U.N. Secretary General could designate Russia and China as coordinating the operation. The U.N. should not have delegated the Libyan operation so much to NATO, but this does not mean that the same thing would have to be accepted in an operation against Assad.

Going beyond the strategic interests esteemed in realism, the question of international governance can be broached, particularly as there are several truly global issues (e.g., global warming). The development of communications technology means that wholesale human rights abuses occurring on the other side of the world can be instantly seen. Out of this greater awareness, a greater groundswell of opposition to unfettered national sovereignty can be expected, with implications for how international governance is structured.

Given the greater need for international governance, the U.N. should be reformed from a confederation to a modern federation such that a few friends do not have sufficient influence to block a resolution against an abusive government. The veto itself should be eliminated, though this might require that a new organization be formed in lieu of the U.N. Otherwise, we will be left with a world in which Hobbesian sovereigns are allowed to violate their citizens’ basic human right to life while friendly government officials attend to their countries’ respective financial and political interests at the expense of the system as a whole and the general good. I contend that enabling violent, abusive dictators is not in our good, so their friends ought not be allowed to prevent the international community from policing its basic standards. National sovereignty should be limited, just as international governance itself would be subject to constraints.

Sources:

Joe Lauria, “Russia, China Veto U.N.’s Syria Move,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204524604576611443084688006.html


Neil MacFarquhar, “With Rare Double U.N. Veto on Syria, Russia and China Try to Shield Friend,” New York Times, October 6, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/world/middleeast/with-united-nations-veto-russia-and-china-help-syria.html