Capstones | 9.29.15
By Alan W. Dowd
What a relief: The UN Security Council (UNSC) has agreed to allow an international WMD watchdog to determine who is to blame for the chemical-weapons attacks in Syria. Up until
now, in classic UN style, the Organization for the Prohibition of
Chemical Weapons was only allowed to investigate the attacks—not blame
anyone for them. In case anyone from the UN’s pale blue yonder reads
Capstones, Bashar Assad’s regime is to blame for reopening this
Pandora’s Box. Sure, both Assad’s henchmen and the Islamic State have
used these vile weapons, but Assad created the environment for this
catastrophe; Assad used them first; Assad failed to control the weapons;
and Assad failed to live up to his 2013 promises to disarm.
story would be laughable if Syria’s plight wasn’t so terrible—and if so
many well-meaning people hadn’t elevated the UN to such an unearned
place of importance. As it is, the Security Council’s decision—two years
late—to give the appearance that it’s trying to find the culprits in
Syria is the latest piece of evidence in the case against the United
Nations. Indeed, a growing number of thinkers are urging the U.S. and
its closest democratic friends to explore alternatives to the UN. Given
the UN’s sad record of moral relativism and systemic inertia, it may be
an idea whose time has come.
Before digging into what might come
after the UN, it’s important to understand the breadth and depth of the
UN’s failures. A good place to start is today’s headlines.
stay in Syria for the moment. The UN’s investigation into the
widespread use of WMDs in Syria comes after a series of utter failures
on the part of the UN. After trying to broker an end to the war in
Syria, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the world body
“strikingly powerless.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls Syria a “collective failure” and proof that the UNSC is
“incapable of taking collective action.” After Moscow and Washington
agreed to collaborate on an effort to disarm Damascus under UN auspices,
he said, “We can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons
while the wider war is still destroying Syria.” Worse, that disarmament
effort has failed. As many of us predicted,
entrusting an untrustworthy regime (Russia) to vouch for the
disarmament of another untrustworthy regime (Syria) was a recipe for
- Those who liked the UN’s Syria disarmament deal will love the UN’s nuclear deal with Iran, which, according to ?AP?,
allows Tehran “under a secret agreement with the UN agency that
normally carries out such work” to use “its own inspectors to
investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear
- In Sudan’s
Darfur region, genocide has gone unpunished—more than a decade after it
was referred to the UN’s International Criminal Court (ICC). “We have
failed Darfur’s victims,” ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently said. “Systematic and widespread crimes continue to be committed with total impunity in Darfur.”
Libya, the UNSC authorized military intervention to protect millions
from Khadafy’s tyranny. The country is now being devoured by
government of North Korea is guilty of “a wide array of crimes against
humanity” and “unspeakable atrocities,” a special UN panel concluded
last year. The atrocities include “extermination, murder, enslavement,
torture, imprisonment…persecution on political, religious, racial and
gender grounds…prolonged starvation.” The panel called on the UN to
“ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity
committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are held
accountable.” The creaking machinery of the UNSC—where China shields
North Korea from international condemnation—prevents such action.
- The UN Conference on Disarmament includes Iran, North Korea and Russia. Iran has been caught repeatedly
pursuing an outlaw nuclear-weapons program, while arming fighters in
Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. North Korea was elevated to
the presidency of
the body in 2011, even as it shipped illicit weaponry, tested
prohibited long-range missilery and detonated nukes. Russia has broken
numerous arms treaties, including the INF Treaty and CFE Treaty.
- In 2013, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia were elected to the UN Human Rights Council,
which, in its own words, is “responsible for strengthening the
promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for
addressing situations of human rights violations.” A global human rights
index ranks Saudi Arabia (where women have no rights, where arbitrary
detention and state-sanctioned brutality are the norm), China (where
people are imprisoned for disagreeing with the state and for worshipping
in a way not approved by the state) and Russia (where freedom of
religion, speech and association are restricted by the state) in the
very lowest category.
is the Bizarro world of the UN, where serial human-rights violators sit
in judgment of the human-rights records of others, where those pursuing
the noble goal of disarmament sit alongside the world’s most notorious
weapons proliferators, where Srebrenica can
be called a “safe haven,” where Aleppo and Kigali and Sarajevo and
Kadugli turn for help and receive only Pilate-like excuses.
“Countries look to the United Nations to exercise moral authority,” former UN official Valerie Amos observes. “Time after time, they are disappointed.”
the United States among the disappointed. Washington’s critics
notwithstanding, the record shows that American presidents try to work
through the UN.
President Harry Truman turned to the UN to build
an international coalition to defend South Korea. The only reason it
worked was Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a meeting of the
President John Kennedy used the UN as a kind of
international courtroom to indict the Soviet Union for its reckless
attempt to deploy offensive missiles in Cuba, and then enlisted the help
of UN Secretary General U Thant to consecrate the secret deal that
deescalated the crisis.
President Ronald Reagan answered the UN’s call for peacekeepers in Lebanon, as did President George H.W. Bush in Somalia.
The elder Bush used the UN to build an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Bill Clinton’s insistence that UNSC resolutions related to Iraq’s WMD
program be enforced found only one supporter inside the UNSC: Britain.
The rest of the UNSC shrugged. Less than a year later, Clinton’s desire
for international authorization to protect Kosovo from Slobodan
Milosevic found more intransigence at the UNSC.
President George W. Bush went to the UNSC for help disarming Iraq, only to be spurned. Incredibly, it took eight weeks for the Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to
comply with existing resolutions—and half the Security Council refused
to enforce it.
President Barack Obama tried to cajole the UNSC
into action in Syria, but Russia stonewalled. Obama, not unlike his
predecessor, ended up building a coalition of the willing to fight ISIS
without UN authorization.
As Ambassador Ivo Daalder explains, the UN is “an institution beholden to its least cooperative members.”
a problem because the governments of America’s closest allies in
Britain, Europe, Canada and the Pacific—and to a growing degree, the
U.S. government itself—view the UNSC as the sole source of legitimacy
for international military action. (That’s debatable, given that many
Americans would argue that the source of legitimacy for U.S. military
action is the U.S. Constitution. But that’s a debate for another essay.)
As Daalder and the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan note,
“Under the United Nations Charter, states are prohibited from using
force except in cases of self-defense or when explicitly authorized by
the Security Council. But this presupposes that the members of the
Security Council can agree on the threat and the appropriate response.”
What if there was a way to bypass the UNSC roadblocks to international legitimacy?
growing support on both sides of the American political spectrum for
just that. Kagan, who served as an advisor to Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen.
John McCain, advocates “a concert of democracies” that would enable
liberal democracies to “protect their interests and defend their
principles.” Daalder, who served as Obama’s NATO ambassador, has called
on “the world’s established democracies” to come together in “a single
institution dedicated to joint action.”
The outlines of a concert of democratic powers may be coming into focus. In 2000, several democratic countries formed the Community of Democracies.
The organization’s governing council enfolds 25 countries, including
the United States, Canada, Poland, Italy, Japan, India and South Korea.
Not a bad start. Plus, partnerships of democratic powers are engaged on
the global stage:
- Anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq,
counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, military-training
operations in Ukraine and Iraq, and counter-terrorism operations in Mali
are conducted by coalitions of democratic powers.
- The Proliferation Security Initiative enfolds dozens of democratic powers that collaborate to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
- The Iraq war was prosecuted by a coalition of 37 nations, the vast majority of them liberal democracies.
international intervention in Kosovo, which mercifully ended
Milosevic’s final ethnic-cleansing campaign, was authorized and
conducted not by the UNSC, but by a community of democratic states known
A concert of democracies wouldn’t necessarily
upend the UN. The UN could still serve as a place where governments work
toward solving common problems like global hunger and disease. UN
sub-agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, UNESCO and the
World Health Organization—organizations whose means and ends the big
powers generally agree on—could continue their good work without the
Still, a concert of democracies would not be without its
limitations. After all, the diplomatic train wreck at the UN before the
Iraq war was the result of friction between two democracies: the U.S.
and France. But like an extra tool in the toolbox, a community of
liberal democracies could serve a helpful purpose when conscience or
interest compels America and its allies to intervene in the world’s
Advocates of the concert-of-democracies idea are in good company.
In 1992, as Yugoslavia descended and the UN dawdled, Reagan, who once called the UN “impotent,” admitted,
“I did not always value international organizations, and for good
reason. They were, if you pardon the expression, nothing more than
debating societies.” He hoped that would change as the Cold War melted
away; it didn’t.
Reagan envisioned “an army of conscience” to
prevent the likes of Milosevic, Saddam and Assad from bullying their
neighbors and bludgeoning their subjects. “Just as the world’s
democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face
of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose
civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of
In many of the post-Cold War crises that
followed, the world’s leading democracies have done that. The fact that
they did so without the UN’s permission does not diminish or
delegitimize their efforts.
Winston Churchill, a founding father
of the UN, expressed concerns similar to Reagan’s. “We must make sure
that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it
is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words,” he said in
Seven decades on, we haven’t succeeded. Perhaps it’s time to try something new.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America's Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.