When U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice responded harshly at the Security Council to the Russian and Chinese vetoes against a draft resolution condemning Syria, it appeared to many observers that the Cold War was back. The Russian and Chinese vote came on the heels of a dramatic escalation of the conflict in the Syrian city of Homs where 300 civilians had just been killed. Rice said she was “disgusted” by their vote, adding, “Any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands.” Rice was not alone. Speaking in Bulgaria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Russian and Chinese veto a “travesty.” She said the West was facing a “neutered Security Council” and it would have to redouble its efforts “outside of the United Nations” to support the Syrian people.
What was going on at the U.N. should not have come as a surprise. For the last 20 years, there has been an ongoing debate over what sort of crises require international intervention through the Security Council. When Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi army to invade Kuwait, there was no disagreement among the superpowers that the U.N. Security Council should become involved. This was an outright attack by one state whose forces crossed an international border to invade another state. The Security Council adopted a series of resolutions which served as the basis for joint military action by the U.S. and its coalition partners.
In April 1994, the Security Council received evidence that a genocide was underway in Rwanda, but the major powers did not want the U.N. to intervene in what they defined as an internal war. Some 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe were killed in that conflict.
It was during the crisis over the internal conflicts in Bosnia, and the rest of what was once Yugoslavia, that the international consensus of what to do in internal wars broke down. Western guilt had grown because of the failure to deal with Rwanda and talk increased about “humanitarian intervention.” In the years that followed they spoke about a “responsibility to protect” peoples threatened by their own governments. Yet Russia adamantly refused to back the Western powers in their plans to take military action against Serbia after the mass expulsions of the population of Kosovo; the Clinton administration nonetheless went to war without any Security Council authorization, relying on the backing of NATO alone. For the Russians and the Chinese, these were strictly internal wars and the U.N. had no business getting involved.
This formal interpretation by the Russians and Chinese of the role of the U.N. was directly related to their own internal situations. The Russians had to deal with internal resurrections in the Caucuses, like the war in Chechnya. The Chinese had a problem with the demands of the Tibetan people for political freedom; in the Xinjiang Region, there has been an armed revolt by Islamic groups. Clearly, neither Russia nor China would like to see the U.N. intervening in either of these cases. During the recent debate over Syria, the Russian Ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, repeatedly rejected Western attempts to use the U.N. to get Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign. Churkin insisted that the U.N. was not supposed to decide “what king needs to resign or what prime minister needs to step down.”
In short, there is nothing new in the Russian and Chinese positions at the U.N. that came out during the Syrian crisis. It should be remembered that when the Obama administration came into office, it hoped to resurrect the standing of the U.N. and multilateral diplomacy in general. Yet when she spoke at the Security Council on Jan. 31, Clinton was exasperated about the functioning of the U.N. in the Syrian situation. She warned at the end of her remarks that there was a danger that failing to support the people of Syria would “shake the credibility of the United Nations.” These were not easy words for Clinton to state, but they perhaps explain the deep disappointment felt in Washington with the Syrian crisis as well as the rage of its top diplomats that came out into the open this past week.
For Israel, the ineffectiveness of the U.N. Security Council in the Syrian crisis has underscored the continuing relevance of the political traditions established by Israel’s founders, especially the idea that its security must be based on its ability to defend itself by itself, and not on any international guarantees through bodies like the U.N.