The vetoes of Russia and China in the UN Security Council on Saturday were a body blow to US international leadership. That is the short version of what happened.
The US and EU backed an Arab League plan to transition Syria from the Assad regime to a new, popularly elected government. The plan was proposed for UN endorsement, so that its execution would have the imprimatur of the UN and the implied weight of international approval. The Obama administration made execution of this plan, through the UN, the focus of US policy on Syria, as did the EU and its major member states.
They brought the question to a vote in spite of the fact that the positions of Russia and China on intervening in Syria have been unchanged for months. It was predictable that Russia and China would veto the resolution. Indeed, it was a grave tactical error to force the confrontation. Russia’s and China’s greatest concerns have not changed, and instead of addressing them, the Atlantic members of the Perm-5 forced a vote.
This was a confrontation that did not have to happen. Russia’s and China’s concerns have sound elements. Consider the issue in this light: do we really want to set a precedent in which the UN gives its stamp of approval to regime-change proposals from the Arab League? Should the UN act as a fulcrum for regime change in this manner? If we allow it to, what will that mean for the future? For whom else will the UN endorse third-party plans for regime change?
The precedent in principle is one of the great problems here, and Russian and Chinese comments on the issue have consistently centered on it. Remember that the UN did not give its stamp of approval to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had as its objective regime-changing Saddam Hussein. I never considered that a problem, and indeed was glad that a faulty precedent was not set then.
In 2011, the UN declined to endorse any regime-change proposal for Libya. In approving the use of force against the Qadhafi regime, the UN’s narrow justification was protection of civilians. That principle was strategically and operationally unsound, to be sure, but by invoking it, the US delegation and the UN avoided pushing for the bad precedent we have just demanded a vote on: having the UN endorse third-party proposals for regime change.
Frankly, Russia and China have good grounds for rejecting that proposal. It is not safe, for any nation, for the UN to be a source of such endorsements. The character of the UN is well known; it cannot be trusted with such a portfolio. Neither the United States nor any nation in Europe is naturally immune to attack by this method – but the Obama administration and the EU continue to behave as if we are.
Besides the flawed principle, Russia is of course concerned about her client, Bashar al-Assad, being removed by outside agency. But her greater concern is who the remover would be. Russia cannot tolerate giving a Western-backed Arab League the lead in picking a new leadership for Syria – any more than Russia thought it was a good idea for Turkey’s Erdogan to pick Syria’s new leadership. The reason is a combination of factors: Moscow fears political-power wins for the Islamic world in the context of a fading, incoherent American power – and the peril is doubled by the fact that it’s the West actively bolstering the Arab-Muslim bloc as a regional power broker.
From the Russian perspective, this Western move is either diabolical – a means of raiding Russia’s client base without confronting Moscow directly – or colossally stupid. China, under perceived pressure from American activism in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, also sees the move as opening doors that should be held closed: doors that will usher in new stability problems on China’s western flank.
We should be clear that Russia and China are both happy to have their own special relationships with the Arab League, and with Arab or other Muslim Middle Eastern nations individually. They understand this as pragmatism, and have no illusions about what it means in terms of amity, goodwill, or commonality of philosophical interests. The problem, from their perspective, is the West giving a boost on principle to a bloc that is hostile, unreliable, and potentially very exploitable by newly-empowered radical Islamists, as the “Arab Spring” spins off its thunderstorms and tornadoes. Either the Westerners are ideological dupes, or they are playing a very deep power game. With their passive-aggressive approach, the US and EU have chosen the path most likely to shift power relationships in negative, uncontrollable directions for everyone in Asia and much of Europe and Africa.
By operating on a set of unrealistic ideological precepts, the Obama administration has made it impossible for Russia and China to tacitly accept US leadership and extract from it the benefits they can. The vetoes they exercised in Saturday’s vote have launched a new period in which they will make fewer and fewer bones about repudiating US leadership and pushing for alternative arrangements.
As for Syria, France has already announced that she is pushing, in the absence of a UN resolution, for a coalition approach (emphasis added):
President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would work with its European and Arab partners to create what he called a “group of friends of the Syrian people” to apply international backing to the Arab League’s call for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the withdrawal of troops and a transition to democracy.
Apparently, Sarkozy is willing to dispense with American “leadership from behind,” and find a solution for Syria without the United States. France’s approach is commonsensical and realistic, and that could be a net positive for Syria and the region. But Russia and China have their own diplomatic channels and proposals in Syria; it is not a given that France’s initiative is the one that will carry the day. In any case, the outcome could very well be worked out without any real input from US power.
Don’t be too quick to say, “Good riddance; France or Russia should be handling it anyway.” If our power is so valueless that it can be dispensed with in the Eastern hemisphere, there is nothing that will prevent that region’s security problems from rapidly becoming ours.