Trying to navigate around the special security cordon for the UN General Assembly last week, I got stuck behind a fellow with closely-cropped hair, a massive American flag and a tee-shirt with “THE UN SUCKS” written on it by hand. That got me thinking, and I have summarized my thoughts in a new op-ed for E!Sharp:
Quite a few U.S. and European officials might have liked to march with the “UN SUCKS” guy. The Palestine debate appeared to confirm that UN diplomacy is weighted against Western interests.
Developing countries backed the Palestinians. The Obama administration stuck with Israel, but was vilified at home for not heading off the issue altogether. The Europeans, failing to declare a single position in advance, looked conciliatory but rather confused.
So is it finally time to give up on the UN? I don’t think so…
China and Russia – the West’s usual foes in the Security Council – have looked uneasy. Although the two powers have a reputation for defending sovereignty and opposing Western interventionism, both proved ready to compromise on these principles in 2011.
China approved tough measures to deal with the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and let the U.S., France and Britain have their way over Libya. In the Libyan case in particular, Beijing calculated that grand-standing against the West would do its economic interests harm.
Russia, generally more pugilistic, seemed weak. It tried to defend the defeated Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo from Western pressure, but eventually backed down. It failed to follow through on threats to block any UN action over Libya. When they lack China’s support, the Russians appear to be an increasingly hollow power in the Security Council.
China and Russia have united in defence of the Syrian regime, heading off even the mildest Western resolutions condemning Assad’s crackdown on protestors. Brazil, India and South Africa – all holding temporary seats on the Security Council – followed along.
Yet in August, increasingly concerned for their international image, the Brazilians and Indians fixed a compromise deal to condemn Syria’s behavior. The agreed text was still extraordinarily mild. Yet the appearance of cracks among the non-Western powers holds out the possibility, however uncertain, that the Europeans and U.S. may be able to pull together unexpected coalitions of allies to push for action through the UN in future crises.
The problem, as the op-ed goes on to say, is that both the U.S. and EU have internal problems (looming elections in one case, a lack of political cohesion and the Euro crisis in the other) that may well prevent them from seizing this moment.
Nonetheless, a lot of recent coverage of UN affairs has been simplistic, with pundits applying a simple “with us or against us” test to countries like India, and concluding that they will be in the “against” column forever. The art of diplomacy is a bit more complicated that, and there are potential openings to reshape the UN (if gradually).
For a more detailed mapping of those openings, check out my latest report with Franziska Brantner on the UN and human rights for ECFR, published last week.