The United States looks increasingly set to carry out an attack against Syria. Britain, France and Germany appear to endorse it. At the sidelines, the United Nations looks on, hands tied by Security Council paralysis. If a majority of the Permanent 5 decide to act, absent a Security Council mandate, it would be a devastating indictment of the UN’s mission to address the world’s gravest crises.
Of course, action without UN approval is nothing new, and criticism of the intergovernmental body is frequent – many were sounding the death knell 11 years ago during the Bush administration. In an address to the General Assembly, President Bush forcefully argued that the UN faced irrelevance if it was unable to take action against Iraq, asking, “will the United Nations serve its purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?” The remarks started a debate over the United Nations as a whole, with the Bush administration arguing that the Security Council proved its obsolescence when it did not authorize the Iraq war.
Despite that disregard for the UN, the Bush administration’s ineptitude in acquiring widespread support for Iraq meant that the ‘irrelevance’ argument failed to gain traction outside of the United States. In fact, the Bush Administration’s snub of the international body damaged the image of the United States far more than the UN. International opinion of the U.S. soured quickly over the course of the next decade. The UN’s caution was ultimately vindicated by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, even as the Bush administration was increasingly seen as bad for global peace and security.
Thus, despite direct attacks on the UN as an institution and a massive military action outside the bounds of its authorization, the UN remained a global peacemaker. The comments made in 2002-2003 about its irrelevancy appeared overblown, as the UN helped rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, was embraced by the new U.S. president, and dispatched its first offensive combat brigade. Yet, the confluence of events approaching now is far different than the prelude to the Iraq war. The Obama administration, France, and Britain are contemplating military action in Syria without Security Council authorization – an action that could be more damaging to UN legitimacy than the overt antipathy of the Bush administration ever was. Here’s why:
President Obama came into office intent on reverting America’s image decline by renewing its commitment to international law. The U.S. rejoined the Human Rights Council, the Iraq war came to a close, and Obama pledged to never use torture. The new U.S. policy towards the UN was especially strong: the Obama administration made it clear it would secure authorization before committing military action, and jumped through those hoops for Libya. In essence, it would take a disastrous failure of international institutions for the U.S. president to deviate from his policy of multilateral diplomacy. The Syria conflict seems to be forcing that very situation. Obama and his foreign policy team have stubbornly, painfully, tried to hold to their commitment to receiving a UN mandate prior to the use of force. Yet, Russia and China veto threats on the Security Council have stymied all efforts. Now, after already blurring the ‘red line’ on chemical weapons, the latest chemical attacks may compel Obama to act with or without UN approval. And this is not just Obama either, Britain, Germany, and even France (who planned to veto the Iraq war resolution) have indicated they might sidestep the UN and endorse a military strike.
All the options are open. The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing.
-Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister
If UN inspectors confirm that Syria used chemical weapons, “it must be punished.”
–Steffen Seibert, Spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Of course, these debates over the UN’s relevancy crop up every time that external powers circumvent the Security Council. Yet, this case is unique. It is not hawkish members of the Bush administration. It is definitively reluctant nations who prefer UN mandates for action. Nations who are strapped for cash and have little appetite for another Middle East conflict. For them to engage without the UN is indicative of how much the Security Council has lost its way. If a majority of the P5 move forward with a strike over the objections of the minority, the damage to the UN as an institution may be long lasting and irreparable.
Brian Ernst has an MA in International Security and is a Senior Research Assistant for the Private Security Monitor.