By Alan W. Dowd, 9.29.15
What a relief: The UN Security Council (UNSC) has agreed to allow an international WMD watchdog to determine who is to blame for the chemical-weapons attacks in Syria. Up until now, in classic UN style, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was only allowed to investigate the attacks—not blame anyone for them. In case anyone from the UN’s pale blue yonder reads Capstones, Bashar Assad’s regime is to blame for reopening this Pandora’s Box. Sure, both Assad’s henchmen and the Islamic State have used these vile weapons, but Assad created the environment for this catastrophe; Assad used them first; Assad failed to control the weapons; and Assad failed to live up to his 2013 promises to disarm.
The story would be laughable if Syria’s plight wasn’t so terrible—and if so many well-meaning people hadn’t elevated the UN to such an unearned place of importance. As it is, the Security Council’s decision—two years late—to give the appearance that it’s trying to find the culprits in Syria is the latest piece of evidence in the case against the United Nations. Indeed, a growing number of thinkers are urging the U.S. and its closest democratic friends to explore alternatives to the UN. Given the UN’s sad record of moral relativism and systemic inertia, it may be an idea whose time has come.
Before digging into what might come after the UN, it’s important to understand the breadth and depth of the UN’s failures. A good place to start is today’s headlines.
- Let’s stay in Syria for the moment. The UN’s investigation into the widespread use of WMDs in Syria comes after a series of utter failures on the part of the UN. After trying to broker an end to the war in Syria, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the world body “strikingly powerless.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls Syria a “collective failure” and proof that the UNSC is “incapable of taking collective action.” After Moscow and Washington agreed to collaborate on an effort to disarm Damascus under UN auspices, he said, “We can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons while the wider war is still destroying Syria.” Worse, that disarmament effort has failed. As many of us predicted, entrusting an untrustworthy regime (Russia) to vouch for the disarmament of another untrustworthy regime (Syria) was a recipe for failure.
- Those who liked the UN’s Syria disarmament deal will love the UN’s nuclear deal with Iran, which, according to AP, allows Tehran “under a secret agreement with the UN agency that normally carries out such work” to use “its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms.”
- In Sudan’s Darfur region, genocide has gone unpunished—more than a decade after it was referred to the UN’s International Criminal Court (ICC). “We have failed Darfur’s victims,” ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently said. “Systematic and widespread crimes continue to be committed with total impunity in Darfur.”
- In Libya, the UNSC authorized military intervention to protect millions from Khadafy’s tyranny. The country is now being devoured by post-Khadafy anarchy.
- The government of North Korea is guilty of “a wide array of crimes against humanity” and “unspeakable atrocities,” a special UN panel concluded last year. The atrocities include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment…persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds…prolonged starvation.” The panel called on the UN to “ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are held accountable.” The creaking machinery of the UNSC—where China shields North Korea from international condemnation—prevents such action.
- The UN Conference on Disarmament includes Iran, North Korea and Russia. Iran has been caught repeatedly pursuing an outlaw nuclear-weapons program, while arming fighters in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. North Korea was elevated to the presidency of the body in 2011, even as it shipped illicit weaponry, tested prohibited long-range missilery and detonated nukes. Russia has broken numerous arms treaties, including the INF Treaty and CFE Treaty.
- In 2013, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia were elected to the UN Human Rights Council, which, in its own words, is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations.” A global human rights index ranks Saudi Arabia (where women have no rights, where arbitrary detention and state-sanctioned brutality are the norm), China (where people are imprisoned for disagreeing with the state and for worshipping in a way not approved by the state) and Russia (where freedom of religion, speech and association are restricted by the state) in the very lowest category.
This is the Bizarro world of the UN, where serial human-rights violators sit in judgment of the human-rights records of others, where those pursuing the noble goal of disarmament sit alongside the world’s most notorious weapons proliferators, where Srebrenica can be called a “safe haven,” where Aleppo and Kigali and Sarajevo and Kadugli turn for help and receive only Pilate-like excuses.
“Countries look to the United Nations to exercise moral authority,” former UN official Valerie Amos observes. “Time after time, they are disappointed.”
Count the United States among the disappointed. Washington’s critics notwithstanding, the record shows that American presidents try to work through the UN.
President Harry Truman turned to the UN to build an international coalition to defend South Korea. The only reason it worked was Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a meeting of the UNSC.
President John Kennedy used the UN as a kind of international courtroom to indict the Soviet Union for its reckless attempt to deploy offensive missiles in Cuba, and then enlisted the help of UN Secretary General U Thant to consecrate the secret deal that deescalated the crisis.
President Ronald Reagan answered the UN’s call for peacekeepers in Lebanon, as did President George H.W. Bush in Somalia.
The elder Bush used the UN to build an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
President Bill Clinton’s insistence that UNSC resolutions related to Iraq’s WMD program be enforced found only one supporter inside the UNSC: Britain. The rest of the UNSC shrugged. Less than a year later, Clinton’s desire for international authorization to protect Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic found more intransigence at the UNSC.
President George W. Bush went to the UNSC for help disarming Iraq, only to be spurned. Incredibly, it took eight weeks for the Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions—and half the Security Council refused to enforce it.
President Barack Obama tried to cajole the UNSC into action in Syria, but Russia stonewalled. Obama, not unlike his predecessor, ended up building a coalition of the willing to fight ISIS without UN authorization.
As Ambassador Ivo Daalder explains, the UN is “an institution beholden to its least cooperative members.”
That’s a problem because the governments of America’s closest allies in Britain, Europe, Canada and the Pacific—and to a growing degree, the U.S. government itself—view the UNSC as the sole source of legitimacy for international military action. (That’s debatable, given that many Americans would argue that the source of legitimacy for U.S. military action is the U.S. Constitution. But that’s a debate for another essay.) As Daalder and the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan note, “Under the United Nations Charter, states are prohibited from using force except in cases of self-defense or when explicitly authorized by the Security Council. But this presupposes that the members of the Security Council can agree on the threat and the appropriate response.”
What if there was a way to bypass the UNSC roadblocks to international legitimacy?
There’s growing support on both sides of the American political spectrum for just that. Kagan, who served as an advisor to Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain, advocates “a concert of democracies” that would enable liberal democracies to “protect their interests and defend their principles.” Daalder, who served as Obama’s NATO ambassador, has called on “the world’s established democracies” to come together in “a single institution dedicated to joint action.”
The outlines of a concert of democratic powers may be coming into focus. In 2000, several democratic countries formed the Community of Democracies. The organization’s governing council enfolds 25 countries, including the United States, Canada, Poland, Italy, Japan, India and South Korea. Not a bad start. Plus, partnerships of democratic powers are engaged on the global stage:
- Anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, military-training operations in Ukraine and Iraq, and counter-terrorism operations in Mali are conducted by coalitions of democratic powers.
- The Proliferation Security Initiative enfolds dozens of democratic powers that collaborate to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
- The Iraq war was prosecuted by a coalition of 37 nations, the vast majority of them liberal democracies.
- Similarly, international intervention in Kosovo, which mercifully ended Milosevic’s final ethnic-cleansing campaign, was authorized and conducted not by the UNSC, but by a community of democratic states known as NATO.
A concert of democracies wouldn’t necessarily upend the UN. The UN could still serve as a place where governments work toward solving common problems like global hunger and disease. UN sub-agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organization—organizations whose means and ends the big powers generally agree on—could continue their good work without the UNSC.
Still, a concert of democracies would not be without its limitations. After all, the diplomatic train wreck at the UN before the Iraq war was the result of friction between two democracies: the U.S. and France. But like an extra tool in the toolbox, a community of liberal democracies could serve a helpful purpose when conscience or interest compels America and its allies to intervene in the world’s desperate places.
Advocates of the concert-of-democracies idea are in good company.
In 1992, as Yugoslavia descended and the UN dawdled, Reagan, who once called the UN “impotent,” admitted, “I did not always value international organizations, and for good reason. They were, if you pardon the expression, nothing more than debating societies.” He hoped that would change as the Cold War melted away; it didn’t.
Reagan envisioned “an army of conscience” to prevent the likes of Milosevic, Saddam and Assad from bullying their neighbors and bludgeoning their subjects. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”
In many of the post-Cold War crises that followed, the world’s leading democracies have done that. The fact that they did so without the UN’s permission does not diminish or delegitimize their efforts.
Winston Churchill, a founding father of the UN, expressed concerns similar to Reagan’s. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words,” he said in 1946.
Seven decades on, we haven’t succeeded. Perhaps it’s time to try something new.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.