As I’ve been following story of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and the resulting moves to prepare for military strikes, I’ve felt like the U.N. has been an under-utilized resource for dealing with the crisis. A few friends mention that President Obama’s ‘red line’ could be defined as something other than a military strike, and I would posit that alternative ‘red lines’ could exist at the United Nations. This would require a rethink of how the U.S. uses diplomacy at the U.N. though.
Before diving into the ‘how’ it’s worth discussing the ‘why’ of how we got to where we are with the U.N. Back in the day, when it was critical for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to never ever meet on a battlefield, the U.N. was viewed as pretty important. The Cuban Missile crisis, while in many ways dealt with through back channel negotiation, played out officially at the U.N. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union took seriously the ability to sway other members, to have the moral high ground that came with global support. Intelligence was collected clandestinely, but it was used by both sides to embarrass the other and make a point to other members publicly. Many a conflagration was averted at the U.N. during the Cold War, since the stakes associated with a NATO-Soviet Union military interaction were so high.
Since the end of the Cold War the U.N. remained important, but slowly ceased to be the key body through which complex crises were resolved. Peace operations doctrine shifted away from being the sole domain of the U.N., and regional bodies such as NATO and the African Union started running multilateral missions, increasingly without U.N. legal backing. Without the threat of direct military interaction between super powers, Russia and China no longer needed to behave as if U.N. resolutions are binding. This means that while they will often not support interventions in countries that are their (tacit) allies, their lack of support is symbolic as opposed to binding. NATO gets its intervention, and Russia and China can be on record opposing it. In effect the Security Council are the only U.N. members that matter, so efforts to court global opinion in the larger Secretariat go by the wayside.
So how do we get back to a place where the U.N. matters? First, we have to get back to a place where diplomacy matters. Since the end of the Cold War, to put it frankly, our foreign policy projection has gotten dumb*. Diplomats represent the U.S. from behind fortress walls until things get tense, at which point military intervention becomes the default response. Creativity and heroism in diplomacy during crises has become an anachronism. Given this dynamic, it makes sense that the only body at the U.N. that matters is the Security Council – to legally intervene, the SC is the body that must approve the intervention. China and Russia go on record with their ‘no’ votes, then the NATO members start the process of getting the other NATO members on board for a NATO intervention. It’s a clean, predictable cycle that demands little diplomacy, while not providing many options for long term stability.
So what would more creative, heroic diplomacy look like? To start, if what is happening in Syria is a moral outrage, then U.S. diplomats need to be doing more than participating in the amoral merry-go-round of Sino-Russian opposition in the Security Council, while the United Kingdom drafts a new resolution for intervention that NATO can act on without full U.N. support.
If we’re going to make a moral argument that Russia and China should stop supporting Assad, we have to show our hand. This is where diplomacy gets important; if the UN inspectors are slow to complete their report, and NATO has intelligence that demonstrates the Assad regime’s culpability in using chemical weapons, then the ‘red line’ could be defined as a public release of those documents/recordings/etc, at the U.N. in front of as many member states as possible. Instead of airstrikes, a relentless hammering of the Russian and Chinese position with evidence of war crimes is an alternative.
We can’t bring back the 100,000 dead, and we can’t change the choices we made or didn’t make in the past regarding Syria, leaving us in a least-worst-of-the-terrible-options scenario. We can’t change Assad either. Diplomacy that puts Russia and China in the moral wrong could alter their positions though, which might systemically weaken Assad without air strikes, and that would be a positive outcome. This isn’t a radical notion, and indeed we’ve done this before; the question is whether we have the moral courage to stick with the hard road of serious diplomacy in the face of what may have been a preventable atrocity.
*When I say that our foreign policy projection has ‘gotten dumb’, I don’t mean that we lack talented diplomats, soldiers and intelligence professionals. We have exceptional talent in those fields. What I mean is that our foreign policy complex writ large, mostly because of myopic congressional budgeting, has systemically become unable to be flexible or creative, severely limiting how we use our foreign policy toolbox.