Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why barbarity wins, in Syria and Crimea

News that Syrian President Bashar Assad had been accepted into the Russian Academy of Sciences makes us wonder about the institution.

Perhaps not surprisingly, last year the academy was placed under tighter government control. Assad didn’t complain, declaring “Russia has re-established balance in international relations, after long years of hegemony” by the United States. For three years, Russia has indeed underwritten the most barbaric crimes of the Syrian regime. Yet it was only when President Vladimir Putin began preparing the annexation of Crimea that many people in the West realized the kind of individual they were up against.

President Barack Obama has declared any secession vote in Crimea illegitimate, and warned: “We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” George Kennan once lamented the American tendency to make foreign policy pronouncements that had no practical consequences and that the United States was unwilling to bolster in a forceful way. We will have to see what Obama does in Crimea, but we can say that, when it comes to Syria, the U.S. has repeatedly confirmed Kennan’s doubts.

What does it tell us if Assad ultimately wins the Syrian conflict? This will surely take years, if it happens at all. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that it does happen. Will it not send a message even more damning to the notion of an international community based on the rule of law than Putin’s maneuvers in Crimea?

In the days of George W. Bush, it was easy for many governments to describe what they did not want in terms of international behavior. They would simply point to the American president. When candidate Obama traveled to Germany during his election campaign, he was greeted by the multitudes in Berlin, there to say that they did not want another Bush in Washington. That same impulse motivated the Nobel Committee when it awarded Obama the peace prize in 2009.

But saying what one doesn’t want is much easier than saying what one does want. And until now the international community has failed to work out effective standards for international behavior, based on a common understanding of international law. This is extraordinarily difficult given the structure of the United Nations, which grants the five permanent members of the Security Council the right to veto any decision with which they disagree.

At the heart of the international community, and the U.N. in particular, lies a glaring contradiction. It is commonly believed that the establishment of an international body after World War II was designed to serve as the cornerstone of a global order based on the rule of law. In reality, as historian Mark Mazower has written, the U.N., like its predecessor the League of Nations, “was a product of empire and indeed, at least at the outset, regarded by those with colonies to keep as a more than adequate mechanism for its defense. The U.N., in short, was the product of evolution not revolution...”

Yet over time, there have been numerous efforts to reinforce the universalist ideals of the U.N. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre a year later, there emerged a new notion in international relations that came to be called the responsibility to protect, or R2P. States had a responsibility to protect their citizens from crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. When they failed to do so, the international community had the responsibility to intervene and could, as a last resort, act militarily after a vote in the Security Council.

In other words, a norm resting on an idealistic interpretation of the U.N.’s role was to be implemented by a body that had institutionalized great power dominance and state sovereignty – therefore was largely antithetical to the universalist aspirations of the R2P supporters.

This disconnect serves as a useful reality check whenever someone describes the U.N. in fulsome terms. One could make a good case that the Bush administration violated international law by invading Iraq in 2003; but one could make an equally compelling case that the U.N. repeatedly failed to implement its own resolutions on Iraq, particularly Resolution 688 of April 1991, which condemned the repression of the civilian population by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Today, the Security Council seems utterly incapable of agreeing to such a resolution when it comes to Syria. Mass slaughter is continuing, while room is being made for Assad in the Russian Academy of Sciences by a man directing the takeover of the sovereign territory of a foreign state. Meanwhile, publics in the United States and Europe continue to adamantly oppose any kind of military intervention in Syria, regardless of what happens to civilians.

This situation sets up a dilemma. A belief in implementing and expanding international humanitarian norms can only grow if there is a conviction that the international community will join together to take up such a burden. But the frequent inability of the U.N. to act decisively on humanitarian matters, as in Syria, has pushed states to act unilaterally in given crises, further eroding the idea of a common interest in defending human rights and international law.

This reality takes us back to the Hobbesian notion of “all against all.” But if so, if power and force alone are what shape foreign policy, then so be it, in Syria as in Crimea. Let’s stop wasting our time by evoking international law and principles in a world that seems so little disposed to ensuring they prevail or, worse, that cites international law as an excuse to avoid taking any humanitarian action whatsoever.

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