What a way to run a planet. Not since Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on his delegate’s desk in 1960 has there been such open animosity at the United Nations. At the emergency session of the security council last weekend, the US accused Russia of barbarism in bombing Aleppo, the British told Russia it was involved in war crimes by helping the Assad regime’s “sick blood-lust”. When the Syrian ambassador started to speak, the US, British and French representatives stomped out of the chamber.
The Syrian war, the crisis of an ancient city under siege, is highlighting how dysfunctional the UN, and in particular its security council, has become. There is a gross mismatch between the savagery on the ground and the inability of world powers to reach even basic agreement. The Russian pattern of using its veto to block an East-West consensus, to stifle any movement towards peace that might infringe on its national interests, is coming to resemble Soviet-era obstructionism. It is jeopardising the security council’s credibility and its role as an arbiter of conflict.
A clue to the venom in the council lies in the background of the people around the table. Samantha Power, the US ambassador, was a young reporter in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 and later went on to write a powerful book arguing the case for liberal interventionism. Her Russian counterpart is Vitali Churkin, who was once Boris Yeltsin’s pointman in the Balkans and a staunch defender of the Bosnian Serbs. Everyone agreed last year, on the tenth anniversary of the killings, that they should be declared an act of genocide. Everyone except Churkin, who cast a veto. Samantha Power was furious.
Russia is using its position as one of the council’s five permanent veto-wielding members to defend its own breaches of international law in Ukraine, to shield its puppet dictators, or the reputation of dead tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and in so doing maintain its foothold in regions of interest such as the Balkans and the Middle East. There is no sense any longer of Russia using its global status to further co-operation. Along with China, it abstained in 2011 on the vote backing intervention in Libya but only because it thought that the West would burn its fingers.
The stasis in the UN has become critical. The US is involved in five wars — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, quite apart from the war against Islamic State — and they are likely to burden the new administration for years to come.
To wind them down, there must be a functioning world order, not a talking shop that ends with a Russian “nyet” and more blood on the ground.
The case of Syria alone shows that it cannot be patched up by a rough and ready agreement between competing alliances. It needs an overarching world authority as a credible guarantor. It is a sign of international helplessness that no one can agree whether the number of dead over the past five years is 270,000 or 470,000. A margin of error of 200,000 lives? That’s a crisis well and truly out of control.
Yet instead of a common plan, the UN is falling apart as surely as the League of Nations. True, it has more solid institutions than its half-baked predecessor. Without them, the 4.8 million Syrian refugees outside the country and more than eight million internally displaced would be sunk. It’s worth remembering, though, what put paid to the League. A remarkably familiar impotence in the face of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the Italian attack on Abyssinia, Germany’s not-so-secret rearmament, the Japanese invasion of China. It would be an easy exercise to find current UN failings that outmatch even those.
The problem lies with the structure of the permanent security council, a post-Second World War club of nuclear powers. It has to be overhauled but it is not clear that its members have the spirit even to begin this process. Take the scramble to replace Ban Ki Moon who is due to step down as secretary-general in December. To give the illusion of transparency, contenders have taken part in hustings but the decision will ultimately be taken by the Big Five. And although the Moscow-educated Irina Bokova, Bulgarian head of Unesco, is lagging behind she remains Vladimir Putin’s favourite. One can only imagine how much reforming zeal she will deploy if Russia forces through her election.
One long-standing proposal is to dilute the power of Russia’s veto by expanding the council membership, turning it from a Big Five into a Big Ten. Under this scheme it might be possible to make a veto valid only if it were deployed by two states. Western diplomacy would then be aimed (as it should be now) at widening the gulf between Russia and its occasional veto-buddy China. Another even more remote option: the Big Five could agree among themselves to use the veto only in extremis, in case of war and peace.
Russia is not the only block to reform. The idea that Britain or France could rotate its seat with other EU states, always improbable, will be the deadest of ducks after Brexit. Would China welcome India or Japan into the club? Unlikely.
Somehow the UN has to be made to work. Aleppo has made the most powerful case for change; Syria, in blood and numbers, surpasses even Bosnia. Ban Ki Moon was virtually in tears as he talked of the Russian bombardment but the UN has unravelled on his watch. His successor will need true grit to take on Putin.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author.