Zimbabwe veto says as much about US and UK as Russia

The Russian and Chinese veto of UNSC sanctions against Zimbabwe may in hindsight have been predicable, even inevitable, but on day of the vote they came as a clear surprise to many, not least British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who only days earlier told the House the tougher sanctions were in the bag.

Leaving aside whether you believe sanctions are a good idea – I certainly do – what happened? Had Russian President Dmitri Medvedev not signed up to sanctions only days before at the G8 Summit in Japan? Did the Prime Minister simply not take “Njet” for an answer? Bit by bit, the run-up to the vote is emerging. 

It now seems the issue was driven not by No. 10, but from the 7th floor of the U.S State Department, where Jendayi Frazer, U.S Assistant Secretary of State, sits. Even though no U.S interests are at stake, Ms Frazer, an academic colleague of Condi Rice’s from her Stanford days, has focused intently on Zimbabwe, apparently raising the issue whenever she meets African leaders.

Ms. Frazer – who is known to abhor her British opposite number Lord Malloch Brown from his UN days – apparently was in the driving seat on Zimbabwe policy, after having waited in vain for a UK lead. With the US Ambassador to the UN, Zal Khalizaid, she apparently pushed hard for a tough resolution. Better to make a stand, the argument went.

But after the G8 meeting, British diplomats apparently thought that the Russians would balk and became nervous. In fairness, Brown – who had been micro-managing the issue – thought he’d gotten Medvedev on board. But either little thought was given to whether the Russian president could in fact deliver – especially after the British Prime Minister harangued him at his first summit – or the issue was not deemed important enough to merit a Russian rejection.

To be on the safe side, however, the Foreign Office apparently asked Bush to call Medvedev and Rice to raise the issue with her Russian counterpart. None of this happened and things began to fall apart. The Chinese, who diplomats believe would probably have abstained if the Russians had not decided to veto, moved to veto as well.

By then the Prime Minister had already sounded confident in his post-G8 address to the House during PMQs. As a last-ditch effort, diplomats considered tabling a weaker resolution, giving South Africa more time to find a solution and thus putting the onus back on Tabo Mbeki and, ultimately, Robert Mugabe. But the U.S – who chaired the UN Security Council – decided to go for broke, tabled the old text and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the aftermath of the no-vote, the U.S government has been quick to point out that the Russian veto shows Russian cannot be seen as a reliable partner. Russian officials have reacted angrily at this, saying Medvedev never promised support for U.N. sanctions.

But what does the episode say about U.S and UK foreign policy?  That even on an issue of such totemic importance to Britain – and where the Prime Minster has taken a personal interest – the U.S remains in the lead, yet unable or unwilling to do the necessary due diligence to ensure more than declaratory success.