UNA Nebraska Blog- Multilateral Meanderings

The following entry was written by David P. Forsythe for the UNA Nebraska blog: Multilateral Meanderings.

Multilateral Meanderings 10

After World War Two, the creation of the United Nations in 1945 ushered in hopes, however briefly held, that a new and effective world order could be created based security, freedom, and welfare. Again after the demise of Soviet led communism in 1991, those same hopes were rekindled. Today, 70 years after the start of the UN, the predominant fact of international life is that the 194 governments of the world do not agree on those values, much less the various armed non-state actors that not only reject human rights but also the laws of war.

For starters, it is perfectly clear that Putin’s Russia seeks an expanded zone of authoritarian traditionalism, blessed by the priests of the Orthodox Church. Chinese leaders, having jettisoned communism in all but name, also believe in authoritarianism with a mixed economy of private and public corporations, emulating Singapore’s quest for rapid economic growth without political freedom. When one throws into the mix other governments and would-be governments like the Assad regime in Syria, the Islamic state in eastern Syria and Western Iraq, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, etc., the contents of the UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and 1949 Geneva Conventions seem like meaningless footnotes to the real history.

In this context it would be tempting for those in the U.S. and Europe to revert to fortress isolationism and let the rest of the world go hang, except that such an approach would be profoundly dangerous to the West. We ignored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and wound up with 9/11. We sought to avoid tough choices in Syria from 2011 and now face a more powerful, expanded Islamic State with designs on not only Syria and Iraq but also much of the rest of the world as well.

There is no reasonable alternative but continue with the tough, long-term quest for effective governance based on security, freedom, and welfare, utilizing the UN when possible. By staying in the game of active policy and commitment, one can seize opportunities for incremental advance. We saw this concerning ridding Syria of chemical weapons under UN Security Council mandate. We see this on a continuing basis when we look at international cooperation to care for refugees whether emanating from Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, or wherever.

Given the evident disagreement on values and policies in the world, we cannot expect the UN to be part of a grand solution disposing of the root causes of insecurity, repression, impoverishment, and mismanagement. But it is still true that if the UN cannot get us to heaven, it can help save us from hell. Just as one needs to stay in financial markets to take advantage of the bull moments, so one needs to stay in the rough game of international politics so as to seize the moments allowing advance. If we jettison our romantic notions of achieving utopia, we will find that the UN remains useful in many practical if smaller ways.

10 March 2014: Ukraine

A “realist” academic, Stephen Krasner, claims that all the attention to state sovereignty, state domestic jurisdiction, and state territorial integrity is “organized hypocrisy.” Events in Ukraine suggest he has a point, up to a point.

The United States and other leading Western states are crying crocodile tears because Putin’s Russia has put it troops in southwestern Ukraine with an immediate view to encouraging Crimea’s secession and unification with Russia. Moscow’s public rationale for this intervention and violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty is the need to protect ethnic Russians there. It was not that long ago that the United States intervened in Panama (George H.W. Bush, 1989), Grenada (Ronald Reagan, 1983), and Dominican Republic (LBJ, 1965). In each and every one of these cases the U.S. made the claim of protecting American lives and property while the real intention was regime change. Regional dominant powers tend to do what they want to do in their own neighborhoods, international law notwithstanding.

A little history of power politics does not make Putin right. Russia is party to a treaty obligating that state to respect Ukrainian independence and borders. Unilateral claims to “humanitarian intervention” have been suspect for a long time, especially since Hitler claimed he needed to move east to “protect” ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland of old Czechoslovakia. Most likely Putin is interested in restoring Russian power on a broad scale and challenging the West, and the current Ukraine stands in his way. Treaties remain effective as long as signatories do not change their view of their interests. Moscow has changed its view about Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

Yet the United States would do well to recall its own unilateral interventions and false cover claims, which have given the Russians some credible talking points. There was also the U.S. intervention in Iraq without a valid basis in claims to genuine self-defense (George W. Bush, 2003), not to mention the NATO bombing of Serbia (Bill Clinton, 1999) without UN approval and which led to detaching Kosovo from Serbia, much as Russia now seeks to detach Crimea from Ukraine.

Policy makers tend to focus on the objective of the day without much attention to long term consequences, much less the law of unintended consequences.

U.S. policy seems to have evolved in our immediate neighborhood. No matter how much Washington detested Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, as far as we know Washington did not intervene to topple him (although surely U.S. officials had contact with his political opponents). But we did not invade as per the Bay of Pigs in Cuba against Fidel Castro (Eisenhower and Kennedy, 1961), nor apparently did we press hard for locals to stage a coup as in Chile against Salvador Allende (Nixon, 1973). So an argument can be made that in the Western Hemisphere the U.S. has been showing more respect for international law and the state sovereignty of others.

If true, and if overlook Iraq and Kosovo and other controversial U.S. interventions of the past, it will still prove difficult to roll back Putin’s policy in Crimea. 1) The major power that moves first militarily has an advantage; it becomes too dangerous to contest that move with a military response. 2) Putin feels strongly that the United States and the West have repeatedly ignored Russia’s legitimate concerns in East Europe, Libya, and elsewhere; for him it is now payback time. 3) However distorted, he sees Russia as morally superior to the West. 4) Lots of ethnic Russians in Ukraine genuinely prefer to be Russian citizens. 5) Several European states, dependent on Russian energy supplies, are not likely to hold a tough line very long.

We are on the verge of a new era in world affairs in which autocrats and their supporting cronies take bold and dangerous steps abroad. Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea are leading examples. Events suggest more difficulties for the United States regarding both Syria and Iran, as cooperation with China and Russia declines. Everything is linked to everything else, and the immediate prospects for effective law and a dynamic United Nations, both dependent on state cooperation, are not good.

29 January 2014: No Mandelas in the Middle East

When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of prison in apartheid South Africa, he sought compromise and reconciliation with his former White tormentors. He recognized not only that bitterness and hatred consumed those who followed a policy of retribution, but also that the Black majority had an interest in not driving away those Whites who were crucial to the South African economy. The result, at least for a time, was a stable transition to “rainbow democracy” and a capitalist economy that was not torn apart by sabotage or civil war.

Unfortunately the lesson was not learned in Iraq and Egypt, much less Syria. There is some hope for Tunisia.

In Iraq, the Shia political elite, long repressed by the minority Sunni under Saddam Hussein, decided that their time had come after the U.S. first invaded and then militarily departed after a bloody occupation and transition. Prime Minister Al-Maliki, the duly elected Shia, failed to reach out to the Sunnis or the Kurds in the north. His narrow and self-serving policies led to disenchantment by both groups, which gave radical Sunni militants an opening to increase violence against a variety of Shia targets. Iraq is now in a fragile state, verging on civil war, and the U.S. has agreed to provide weapons and intelligence, lest Western Iraq become a safe haven for global terrorists.

Similarly in Egypt, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, long repressed by the secular Mubarak dictatorship, helped bring down that tyranny and then won the 2012 national elections. President Morsi, rather than seeking compromise with the secular liberals who had started the revolution and with key officials of the Mubarak regime, pushed ahead with a new constitution and policies that troubled the other political activists. The result was a coup basically restoring the old military order, with the secular liberals squeezed out. The new military elite is now doing essentially what Morsi and the Brotherhood did, pushing a narrow agenda without efforts to reach compromises with opponents. The Brotherhood is again being vigorously repressed, with Morsi in the dock in a political trial.

Syria is even worse and Tunisia somewhat better than the two examples above. Assad and the various rebel groups are still trying to kill as many opponents as possible, and the Swiss talks seem to be going nowhere. Tunisia, which started the Arab Spring of political awakening and push for democracy with human rights (and more jobs), seems to be stumbling toward more compromise and political accommodation, although the process has not been smooth or free from political murders.

To be sure, South Africa today is not to be confused with paradise. There is gross inequality between Blacks and Whites in education, jobs, and general opportunity. Procedural democracy has not become social democracy. Corruption is not unknown in the ruling African National Congress, which is one factor giving rise to a new multi-racial political party—probably a good thing. Still, without Mandela’s political vision, matters would have been worse.

The United States, which has proven a marginal player in most Middle Eastern events through lack of political will and strategy, could use some Mandelas as well. Sensible compromise has not been a hallmark of decision-making in Washington either.

And the United Nations is left to pick up the pieces, administering to the needs of Syrian refugees and displaced persons, and hosting mediation attempts which are not likely to succeed because the key actors have little motivation for compromise.

8 December 2013: Nelson Mandela and Human Rights

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July. It would have been eminently symbolic if Nelson Mandela had died December 10th, International Human Rights Day. No single person better personified the notion of human rights in modern times than Mandela, who passed from this life on December 5 at the amazing age of 95. Despite 27 years of prison which included stretches of hard labor, his body proved as strong and vibrant as his mind. Both were devoted to fighting South Africa’s version of racial segregation.

Mandela’s incarceration was entirely legal under the laws of white minority government in that nation. But the idea of human rights rests on the argument that there is a universal set of personal rights which are fundamental for securing a life with dignity, whatever this or that national law might say. After all, the Nazis had laws too.

How then are we to know what those universal rights are? We could rely on philosophers, whether they believed in natural law or not. A practical answer is that all the states of the world meet and negotiate a set of fundamental personal rights. This is what happened on December 10th in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissenting vote (but with 8 abstentions). Human rights treaties followed to convert diplomatic agreement into law.

Universal human rights do not implement themselves. People like Mandela have to take up the challenge of securing implementation. This he did first through peaceful protest and legal argument, then later through support of armed action when the white authorities increased repression. From jail he continued to lead the opposition to apartheid in the name of the rights of all regardless of color and other superficial distinctions like gender or economic status.

Those South Africans with vested interests in the status quo resisted for a long time with brutal determination. Such elites always do, because human rights are not given. They are wrestled from below in a political process. The white minority South African elite yielded not to superior moral and legal logic, but because they finally recognized that given the pressures they faced, their own self- interests could only be protected in rainbow democracy. All- race elections occurred there in 1994, and a free Mandela voted for the first time in his life.

Americans now praise Mandela, from President Obama to Tiger Woods. But U.S. foreign policy was slow to decisively oppose apartheid in South Africa. Nebraska acted earlier, applying economic pressure through the Unicam as Senator Ernie Chambers led the fight to deny state pension fund investments to companies profiting from racial discrimination in South Africa.

Commentators now sermonize about how South Africans should keep alive Mandela’s memory and his determined but politically shrewd commitment to universal human rights. Americans might do the same as we continue to debate immigration reform, health care reform, and other perplexing questions such as what to do about violation of human rights in Syria. Universal human rights might indeed prove important in shaping national developments. Mandela (and Jefferson) believed in that possibility.

29 September 2013: The UN and Syria

Many things have changed in the world since the end of World War II, but the basic functioning of the UN is not one of them. What was true in 1945 at the beginning of the UN era is still true today: the organization is most relevant and effective when the Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council are in agreement. Furthermore, other UN bodies can bring the greatest diplomatic pressure when most member states are in agreement. The UN is primarily a political organization controlled by states, and state cooperation or conflict is the most important factor in what transpires in the name of the UN. In other words, the UN is largely dependent on state foreign policy. Only sometimes can independent UN officials affect state views.

These continuing facts are demonstrated by recent events concerning Syria. Russia and the United States are in agreement on eliminating chemical weapons held by the Assad government. They continue to disagree on larger strategic questions about the future of that government and what to do about opposition militias. So the UN Security Council, with other members tagging along, including the other veto possessing states of Britain, China, and France, is able to pass an important resolution on chemical weapons. This resolution threatens unspecified sanctions for Syrian non-compliance. No resolution has been passed on the broader strategic issues.

Likewise in the UN Human Rights Council, made up of 47 states elected by the General Assembly, 40 voted in favor of a resolution demanding that the Assad government increase cooperation with international humanitarian agencies and with a fact finding panel investigating war crimes. Only Venezuela voted against, and only six other states abstained. So for what it is worth, the pro-Assad factions now clearly know that the rest of the world wants more moderate policies from Damascus, and that any allies in Assad’s brutal and obstructionist behavior are few and far between.

To be sure, there are independent parts of the UN not under the full control of states, and this “second UN” does what it can to affect Syrian developments. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon from South Korea, has spoken out against threatened U.S. military Strikes. The head of the UN refugee office (UNHCR), Antonio Gutierrez from Portugal, has appealed for greater contributions to help with both displaced persons inside Syria and refugees outside.

The bottom line in understanding is that the UN can make a central contribution to world affairs particularly when the major states manifest overlapping views about how to manage problems. This was FDR’s vision in the 1940s. It was and is mostly a “realist” view that links the UN tightly to state power. True, the Permanent Five with the veto have more rights (and duties) than others, but this was the price of having a UN at all. We all know that mainly the Cold War mostly disrupted this basic scheme between roughly 1947 and 1989. The trick now is to find areas of policy agreement among the major states after the Cold War, so that the UN avoids becoming marginal to world problems or the scene of intense disagreement, as it was in many ways during much of the Cold War.

Can independent UN officials help states “learn” more moderate policies and the benefits of compromise and cooperation? There is not much evidence of that. States seem mostly to learn by experiencing the consequences of their mistakes. Thus, they have learned the terrible destruction that results from Great Power wars. I suppose UN officials can remind states of this negative learning in urging them to cooperate more and compete less. That is something, if disappointingly meager. But as has been said, the UN is not to get us to heaven but to save us from hell.

6 August 2013: International Law

In an essay in Foreign Affairs, the centrist bi-partisan journal, Jon Kyl (former Republican Senator from Arizona), Douglas Feith (former neo-con advisor to Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon), and John Fonte (staff member at the right wing Hudson Institute) argue that international law undermines democratic sovereignty. In a sense they state the obvious: if you have law, those regulated by the law , including democracies, are not free to do as they please. So when sovereign states consent to the making of international law, they consent to being regulated and limit their own legal authority to make policy as they please.

What these authors really object to is delegated policy making by international officials which dares to run counter to what some congressional members or executive branch officials might want. So for example, when UN human rights officials criticize US behavior at the Guantanamo military prison, these authors get excited about a presumed infringement on decisions by US elected officials. They want to turn back the clock to a time when world affairs consisted almost exclusively of states, and international organizations based on international law either did not exist or had no independent ability to do or say anything important. They bridle when international officials, not directly elected by American voters, take issue with the direction of (some) US policy.

The first thing to be said about their view is that they almost never apply it to international organizations that promote the private sector and free trade, like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. They accept an activist role for the head of the IMF (always a European so far) and the independent Dispute Panels of the WTO (made up of various independent persons), because these international officials promote economic liberalization and a strong for-profit sector. Such international officials are not directly controlled by the Congress or President, but that does not bother these authors very much. Aside from extreme libertarians like Rand Paul, most Republicans accept international organizations to actively stabilize free trade and bailout the economies of cooperating free market states. For example, they accept WTO decisions that go against US policy without a serious move to withdraw from that international organization utilizing international law.

The second thing is that modern democracy is almost always delegated democracy to some extent, in which popularly elected officials in the nation then delegate some policy making to unelected officials such as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Supreme Court Justices, the US Trade Representative, etc. European and South American democracies have gone even further, delegating some policy making to regional international officials in the European Union and Organization of American States. The United States has not gone in this direction, since, for example, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association) has almost no independent authority. But the three authors fear this kind of delegated authority, which in Europe and much of Latin America is seen as good for regional order including a regional commitment to democratic state capitalism. International organization is used to backstop liberal democracy, as well as to try to avoid war and pursue other public goods.

The third thing is that at the UN and some other international organizations, there is a type of democracy that goes on which allows citizen groups to participate in international relations. These international organizations like the UN, based on international law, actually expand the scope of a type of democracy. This occurs when Amnesty International-USA or some civil rights organization or the representatives of some indigenous people or some women’s group is allowed to testify and submit documents in the UN process. So when the UN Human Rights Council goes through the Universal Periodic Review process and evaluates the human rights record of this or that state, these sub-national groups are allowed to participate in certain ways. Likewise at the World Bank, there is considerable consultation with civic society groups affected by Bank development decisions. This can be seen as part of the democratization of world affairs, in that sub-national groups of citizens get to have their say. The rules of international organization often can be seen as expanding civic participation in policy making.

In the last analysis, Kyl, Feith, and Fonte see reference to much international law as lawfare—the use of international law to make legal war on the democratic United States. They have a simplistic and retrograde view not only of law but also of world affairs. Given the continuing growth of international organizations over time, both public and private, their argument runs into strong historical headwinds. Outside of extreme libertarian circles, it is not likely to get much traction. At least one can hope so. A pure nation state system, with little international law and few muscular international organizations, would be a very dangerous and unstable place. Of course there is room for serious debate, already occurring in democratic Europe, about what powers and how much should indeed be delegated to international officials not popularly elected. The serious question is not about either or, but one of degree.

The bottom line is that the three authors have an elevated view of American nationalism and U.S. unilateralism. On the other hand, particularly the European democracies know first-hand the dangers of misguided nationalism and unilateralism. After Vietnam and Iraq, among other factors, one does wonder about arguments based on American inherent wisdom and foresight, even if couched in the principle of national democracy.

25 July 2013: The Conundrum of Syria

In Washington clearly there is no consensus about what to do about Syria. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry may be right when he took to the floor recently in the House of Representatives to oppose the Obama policy of arming some of the more acceptable rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. Then again Obama may turn out to be right in providing enough arms to provoke a stalemate that might lead to serious negotiations about a new government.

The Assad regime has been terrible in many ways, but a new government dominated by extremist Sunnis would not necessarily be better. Surely after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, no one should have much confidence in the ability of outsiders to control developments, much less to guarantee that any future Syrian regime would be genuinely democratic at home and pragmatically moderate in its foreign policies.

Rep. Fortenberry said the U.S. should not be complicit in rebel atrocities, which are indeed factual and numerous. Unfortunately if the U.S. stays on the political sidelines, it will be complicit in the Assad atrocities, which also are factual and numerous. After all, the U.S. was complicit in the Rwandan genocide by not intervening to stop it, just as it was complicit in the rise of Franco’s fascism in Spain in the 1930s by not opposing it. If you have the capability to intervene but do not, you still wind up with some moral responsibility for what follows. This is exactly why Bill Clinton wound up apologizing for the U.S. record in Rwanda. Syria is not a clear case of genocide, but it remains a clear case of atrocities nevertheless—a true humanitarian disaster with about 100,000 killed thus far.

Matters will be decided by states and a few armed non-state actors. The United Nations can help with refugee flows (now over 1.5 million and counting), displaced persons inside Syria (when access can be negotiated), fact finding commissions (as on the use of chemical weapons), mediation about an agreed solution (two efforts have failed because the fighting parties still hoped for victory), and in other ways. But the outcome of the fighting and thus the future of Syria will be decided fundamentally by the combatants, not by the UN.

Obama’s cautious and inconsistent pragmatism is to be preferred over another emotional and badly planned crusade as per Iraq, especially given our fragile economy, deep debt, and over-stretched military posture. Each of our political parties is split over what to do. The Pentagon recently made clear that it is not enthusiastic about deep Syrian involvement–nor is the American public.

Realists, like John Mearsheimer in Chicago, argue that we have no vital national interests at stake. But the triumph of the Assad regime, linked to Iran and supported by Hezbollah, and supplied mainly by Russia, is not an outcome that the U.S. should welcome. Moreover, U.S. dithering and half-measures will be encourage Iran and others to disregard whatever Washington says it wants in the world—which could lead to costly, even deadly, miscalculations in the future. So the U.S. does have interests at stake. How vital is a matter of debate, even if the American homeland is relatively secure.

The two most likely developments—a victory by the Assad forces, or a military stalemate and some negotiated transition—both mean further killings and other atrocities. It will take time for either pattern to emerge. No outside state or coalition has the will to intervene massively to try to impose an end to the killing fields in the short term. As was true of the last century, we have a wonderful set of progressive laws on the books, both humanitarian law for war and human rights law in general. But these laws are interpreted and implemented—or ignored– mainly by states and other armed actors. The result is good laws but bad practice. It is not clear how it can be otherwise. But people of good will and peaceable intent try for progress nevertheless.

12 June 2013: UNHCR

There is a lot to dislike about the United Nations, but one needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The UN Charter talks about “we the peoples,” but the organization was formed by governments speaking for states, and those same governments have controlled the most important decisions taken at the UN ever since. In this simplified first cut of understanding, the UN is a stage and governments are the lead actors.

The reason why the UN system is a sprawling series of overlapping agencies is that governments have made it that way. A collection of governments decide they want a council on peacebuilding or sustainable development or whatever, and so they vote to create it. These organs often feature a great deal of talk and passing of idealistic resolutions, but that is partly because governments do not allow most UN organs to exercise muscular authority. They can talk and vote but not command. And anyway the members of such UN organs are still states.

Now as part of this often dysfunctional family known as the UN, there are agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that are worth a good bit. When about two million refugees fled Rwanda in 1994 into mainly Zaire (as it then was), the UNHCR already existed and acted to coordinate help. Now when over 1.6 million refugees are fleeing Syria into places like Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, again the UNHCR is the lead UN agency in coordinating a response.

On the one hand the UNHCR was created by states, answers directly to an Executive Council made up of states, and operates mostly on a voluntary budget provided by (mainly Western) states. On the other hand the High Commissioner is an independent international civil servant who, much like the British monarch, has the right to warn and advise– and maybe even take as much action as key states allow. If you will, he or she is a supporting actor, but an important supporting actor.

The current head of UNHCR is Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal. At the time of the Rwandan massive exodus, UNHCR was headed by Sadako Ogata of Japan. Her memoirs, Turbulent Decade, are very much worth reading. She wrote candidly that during her tenure, the UNHCR was allowed to do what fit with the strategic interests of the Great Powers. Thus she was able to fund and organize extensive programming in Zaire, but she could never get the Security Council to deploy armed forces to clean out the Hutu militias that were using the refugee camps as sanctuary. So she contracted with some forces from Zaire to try to do that.

Today because of Syrian brutal developments, UNHCR is again warning and advising while it copes with the creation of multiple cities of refugees. The refugee camp Zaatari in Jordan alone comprises some 500,000—about twice the population of Lincoln. There are also IDPs in distress: internally displaced persons who have yet to cross an international border and who thus are not technically refugees. Sometimes the UNHCR also deals with IDPs, when states allow and when the UN agency can manage access to them.

When it comes to refugees and IDPs, other actors such as UNICEF or the International Committee of the Red Cross often are involved—not to mention fully private agencies like Oxfam or Save the Children or Doctors Without Borders. But at least for the UN, the UNHCR is usually the lead actor in coordinating responses to uprooted civilians, contracting with non-governmental organizations to do the grassroots work of providing actual help. Its overall record since the early 1950s is good. Like all human organizations it manifests a few defects. Its record in Somalia in the early 1990s was not so great. In Kenya some local staff abused their positions to exploit. But its record in Bosnia 1992-1995 was very good.

The UNHCR is one of those UN agencies that mostly redeem the promise and reputation of the UN. UNICEF is another. Certainly the UN Security Council can provide considerable legitimacy by approving or criticizing state policies, not to mention by authorizing enforcement actions or peacekeeping missions. In legal terms the UNSC can command. But it is UN agencies like UNHCR who do considerable good works of a practical nature in the field—as well as independently advising and warning in New York. We should not let justified criticism of some aspects of the UN system blind us to the UNHCR and other UN actors who are extremely helpful in our often unfair and indeed bloody world.

1 May 2013: International Criminal Law

Close observers of world affairs will recall that international criminal law (ICL) began a renaissance in 1993 when the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Since that time the UNSC has been involved many times in ICL issues concerning prosecution of individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. From one point of view the Council can be congratulated for taking steps to respond to atrocities that during the Cold War were often ignored. From another point of view the Council has been highly political and therefore highly inconsistent in that response, often showcasing not the rule of law in international relations but rather the priority of short term and parochial “national interests” of member states– above all the Permanent members with the veto (P-5). A central question is whether in the future the Council can display more principled commitment to legal justice and less variation based on P-5 strategic political calculation.

Space does not permit an extensive review of how the Council advanced ICL and a variety of types of criminal courts since 1993 with regard not only to the former Yugoslavia but also Rwanda, Sierra Leone (with implications for Liberia), East Timor, and Lebanon. (The Cambodian special criminal court was approved by the UN General Assembly.) Likewise, after the creation of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) by treaty during 1998-2000, the UNSC was involved in criminal justice issues in places like Sudan (Darfur) and Libya. All of this action for increased use of courts is apart from other Council steps in response to atrocities such as deployment of security forces in the field, appointment of diplomatic personnel, imposition of sanctions, and so on. Moreover, sometimes the Council was not centrally involved in ICL developments, as when a state such as Ivory Coast or Kenya itself (not to mention Uganda, Central African Republic, or Democratic Congo) activated the ICC directly. There were also other ICL developments outside the UNSC pertaining to the exercise by states of the principle of universal jurisdiction for egregious crimes like torture. Nevertheless, the Council has been persistently involved in ICL since 1993.

It has sometimes been said of internationally recognized human rights in general that developments since 1945 represent a form of neo-colonialism, with the powerful imposing their will on the smaller and weaker post-colonial states. While this critique can be overstated, there is unfortunately some truth to the assertion when it comes to ICL. In particular China, Russia, and the United States refuse to consent to the authority of the ICC and are exempt from UNSC resolutions because of their veto rights in that organ, yet they sometimes compel others to submit to the norms and procedures of ICL. (At least Britain and France have accepted the ICC.) Then there is the question of why China would host Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir on a state visit after he had been the subject of an arrest warrant by the ICC. Many other issues remain to bedevil UNSC deliberations about ICL, such as when to refer a situation to the ICC and when to seek an end to atrocities through measures apart from adjudication.

In the final analysis (for now), a central question is whether the evident double standards of contemporary UNSC action for ICL can be reduced, and thus whether a more principled commitment to criminal justice through that important UN organ can be achieved.

24 April 2013: Two-level Game

It’s especially difficult for many of those who live in the American heartland to comprehend the importance of multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy. We are such a large and powerful country, and with friendly neighbors, that we are used to unilateralism—taking our own decisions and not worrying too much about what others think. But our difficulties especially since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq remind us of the perils of that course of action.

One might recall that back in 1991-1992 when Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, George H.W. Bush worked hard to get two permission slips in order to respond—one from the UN Security Council and the other from Congress. He got the first easily and the second with more difficulty. The senior Bush then worked hard to build a broad coalition of support for applied force. This large alliance basically paid for our short but effective Gulf War.

By comparison, his son George W. Bush fairly easily got congressional authorization to use military force in 2003 to invade Iraq but never did get UNSC approval. Indeed, there were lots of warning signs that the United States would have to invade without broad support since democracies in the UNSC like France, Chile, and Mexico, among others, opposed U.S. policy. As a result, the U.S. led the attack against Saddam but only Britain among significant military powers followed. Washington wound up in a quagmire until about 2009, with very heavy financial burdens, and with some 4,000 American military personnel killed plus over 30,000 wounded. UNSC approval would not have eliminated all of these negative numbers, but a broader coalition of support would have increased burden sharing.

The fact is that particularly foreign policy is a “two level game” in which domestic and international sources of legitimacy—mostly from collective approval—come into play. A President who goes to war without congressional and UNSC endorsement is out on a limb. As the colorful Lyndon Johnson once remarked, it’s best to have everyone on board at takeoff in case there’s a crash landing. States have a right of individual and collective self-defense, but it is still better to proceed with votes of approval.

Generally for every country including the United States, calculations of self-interest are paramount and alliance-building and collective approval are means to that end. But our view of the U.S. national interest can be broad or narrow. After World War II we considered the defense of Western Europe as part and parcel of our own self-interest. We were prepared to sacrifice for them, and for Japan, South Korea, Greece, and so on. And we did sacrifice, with both blood and treasure.

The current situation in Europe shows how difficult it can be to maintain a broad conception of national interest. The German government is having great difficulty continuing to underwrite the recovery from bad practices in Greece, Italy, Spain, and so forth. It was once thought that a new European identity was emerging that would supplant more parochial—aka national—identities. The Euro zone crisis shows that those more parochial identities—and conceptions of national interests—remain strong. The sense of being European seems to have weakened.

The United States, with its strong traditional identity and sense of mission in the world, has never been enticed into a regional organization with aspirations to supplant the traditional nationalisms of its members. The United States is a member of the OAS (Organization of American States) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association), but these do not intrude much on U.S. sovereignty or ultimate legal authority. Washington has never accepted the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights which has the final say on the meaning of the InterAmerican Convention on Human Right, which the United States has never ratified. So unlike in Europe, in the Americas there has never been a strong sense of Hemispheric identity that might one day lead to strong regional governance. Americans have enough controversy about city, county, state, and federal authority within the country, so they have apparently decided to skip issues over regional governance as per Europe.

Still, the fact remains that even in the American heartland, we have multiple identities and live in multiple societies. We live in American society and in international society. There is national law and international law. And the exact nature of our self-interest is a constructed definition rather than something handed down from “above” for all time. We have to decide what is the right policy for us as a territorial state, a regional citizen, a member of various alliances such as NATO, and member of the United Nations. John Donne wrote that no man is an island, and no state is either.

10 March 2013: States and the UN

Despite all the paranoid talk on the American extreme right about threats from the UN, that organization has never had much independent coercive power. When it comes to applying economic sanctions or utilizing military force, the binding decisions are taken in the UN Security Council by governments which represent states. The United States is one of five with the veto over any substantive resolution. All UN coercive power is borrowed from states. Whether the subject is neutral peacekeeping or more muscular enforcement action, it is states that take the basic decisions, states that loan forces to wear the UN blue helmets, states that agree (or not) to contribute forces to undertake combat. Independent UN personnel can offer policy advice. They are sometimes asked to take tactical decisions to help manage military force. Recent events can be understood against this background.

In 2005 states at the UN Millennium Summit agreed on the principle of R2P: the responsibility to protect. If sovereign states undertook or allowed atrocities such as war crimes (violations of the laws of war) or crimes against humanity (systematic attack on civilians), outside states could step in acting in conformity with international law. The reason why this norm has not been fully activated in Syria is that leading states either support the Assad regime (Russia) or fear another quagmire (United States, France, United Kingdom). China defers. Thus key states see the situation primarily in terms of national interest and not universal standards.

One result, aside from over 700,000 deaths of mostly Syrians, is numerous displaced persons inside Syria and about 1 million refugees in mainly Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The latter are generally managed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees whose mainly voluntary budget is supplied mainly by Western states. Things are reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994 when states did not want to intervene to stop genocide, but then spent millions of dollars to attend to a massive refugee flight that, in addition to the human misery, fueled the vicious and on-going conflict in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo. Today one fears destabilization in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon. All the key decisions are still taken by states, along with rebels and a few other non-state parties like the Hezbollah militia (supplied by mainly Iran).

Recently UN peacekeepers, neutral and unarmed, supervising the armistice line on the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, were seized by a rebel militia in the Syrian conflict. Croatia had already withdrawn its military personnel on loan to the UN, fearing negative events. Israel, critical of the UN in general and of some other UN peacekeeping operations, favored the UN role on the Golan Heights because that UN peacekeeping had helped stabilize the situation for decades. Most remaining blue helmets, loaned by the Philippines, had no role in Syrian events but became hostages because of ill-advised action by certain rebel personnel. They have now been escorted into Jordan. The Israeli-Syrian armistice line is now more insecure, with a potential for more negatives.

When it comes to security and human rights issues, which are often entangled, the key decisions are still taken by governments and want-a-be governments like rebels in a civil war. The UN is often involved, but only when governments which represent member states give it a role. The Secretary-General and the head of the UNHCR are independent and can advise and comment. They can help manage if given permission to act. But if one wants to address how to manage the root causes of violence and refugee flight in the Syrian conflict, the proper primary focus is on comparative governmental policy.

Involving “the UN” is an option of potential importance, but paradoxically “the UN” is not an independent actor of the first order of importance. With regard to Syria, the UN name was associated with R2P, which is important. The UNHCR is often the lead actor on the ground in responding to refugee problems, which is important. UN peacekeeping often helps reduce violence, which is important. Negotiations often occur at the UN (and Arab League), which is important. But state calculation of national interest, and state willingness to undertake national costs for international action, remain paramount.

23 February 2013: Uber-Nationalism

Thinking further about the small brouhaha over Agenda 21, one can get a distorted view by focusing on the activist few attacking the UN and forgetting about the more rational many who support that necessary if imperfect organization. Recent letters to the editor in the Lincoln Journal Start are noteworthy for their detachment from reality. Several note their opposition to the word “sustainable,” as in the phrase sustainable development. Use of that “S” word is said to prove the insidious power of the nefarious UN and its socialist agenda to destroy American property rights. They cite no factual particulars to justify their views. But then the light bulb came on for me. The citing of facts about the UN and its Rio meeting on environment and development makes no difference to them because they are truly paranoid. And paranoia is a mental health condition in which the person by definition lacks contact with reality. So reason will never convince them to change. Best then to ignore them and move on, hoping no more of them get elected to the legislature or other office of policy-making.

If one bothers to check recent reliable polls of American and world views, one finds continuing strong support for the United Nations and tasks that might take place under its banner. I was struck to find among Americans some 70% support for the International Criminal Court. One might have thought that since the U.S. has never ratified the treaty creating the Court, and since the George W. Bush tried (but failed) to kill the Court until a change of policy in 2005, that Americans might have indicated strong reservations. But they did not. On a series of questions Americans, along with other publics around the world, want the UN to exercise other strong roles with regard to such matters as a standing UN peacekeeping force and an independent power to arrest those indicted for genocide. Polls indicate American and other public support for international law and for viewing treaties as just as important as any other form of law.

Now many of these possible UN roles are not going to become reality, but not because of public opinion. They will not become reality because many policy makers are strong unilateralists who do not want the UN to have independent power and do not want their nation-states to be seriously limited by international law. One might think of the Russian leader Putin in this regard, but I think of a group of U.S. Senators like Inhofe of Oklahoma and Johanns of Nebraska who recently voted against the Senate giving consent to the ratification of a mild treaty advancing the rights of the disabled. The treaty was modeled on U.S. law and imposed no onerous burdens on our country because our national law is as advanced as the treaty if not more so. Yet the super-sovereigntist Senators voted no on consent. There were enough of them to block consent to ratification because that requires a two-thirds majority. They also oppose ratification of the more important Law of the Sea Treaty although it is backed by the Pentagon, was backed by George W. Bush, and could help head off Chinese-Japanese frictions in the South China Sea that might lead to armed conflict.

These uber-nationalists are not paranoid in the sense of the wing-nuts decrying Agenda 21. But they are ideologically unilateralist to the extent that they object to a treaty that would not require any changes in U.S. law but would be to the advantage of disabled Americans when traveling abroad. And they object to a treaty that the Pentagon wants and almost all diplomats say would be good not only for the U.S. Navy but for American businesses relying on trade and the shipping that does with it. Incidentally, the Law of the Sea Treaty would also be good for maritime environmental protection.

Sometimes part of the voting public does dumb things, like electing wing-nuts to the legislature. But on some issues the general public is way out in front of those policy-makers who do not recognize that we all live in an interdependent world that needs a progressive rule of law. If the UN did not exist it would surely have to be invented. Only one state, Indonesia, has every voluntarily left the UN, and it quickly asked to rejoin.

16 February 2013: Agenda 21

One of the striking facts about American society is that so many Americans do not live in a factual, evidence-based world.

These folks call for less governmental regulation of the economy in D.C., failing to note that with increased deregulation since the 1980s, the top 1% of Americans have increased their take of the pie, and the middle class take has stagnated. So what the Tea Party calls for is actually a set of steps that would weaken the middle class further and actually enhance the wealth of the already wealthy. America is fraying at the seams because of class divisions, and yet some folks, ignoring the facts, call for speeding up in the wrong direction. Particularly blue collar white males, who are drawn to the Tea Party and have voted Republican in large numbers since LBJ, endorse a party and program that has lined the pockets of investment bankers and other fat cats. Their own pockets are hurting. Yet they do not vote in their own self- interest. Scary.

Some of these ideological folks, ignoring facts, are opposed to the UN in general, and just skip over the good that is done by UN agencies like UNICEF, the refugee office, the World Food Program, etc. There are lots of advantages from the UN, whether concerning the deployment of peacekeepers or attempted mediation of conflicts, and yet for part of American society ideology trumps evidence. Scary.

This is also the case with regard to Agenda 21, a (long) list of proposals to protect the environment put forward by states at a UN meeting in Brazil in 1992. “The UN” was a meeting place, as it often is in New York or Geneva or Rio, and the resolutions were negotiated and adopted by states, not independent UN officials. None of Agenda 21 is binding. All societies (and now even Cuba) combine pursuit of private property rights and private economic ventures with efforts to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, etc.

There is nothing subversive about Agenda 21. Most scholars agree that it is too big to be very meaningful and that states have mostly ignored it in their national and sub-national policy making. The main problem with Agenda 21 is that it has had virtually no impact anywhere. Yet, ignoring all these facts, there is a group of Americans spread across various states who have introduced legislation based on the view that Agenda 21 is a major threat to American freedom, especially economic freedom in the form of property rights. Despite the fact that the UN was an American project, and that the U.S. has a veto where things matter, in the UN Security Council, these paranoid folks view the UN as a group of sly foreigners intent on pushing socialism. In fact, virtually all state members of the UN are increasingly capitalist, even China, and they have not been keen on delegating much independent power to the UN. The UN Secretary-General can talk, but he controls no economic or military levers.

Glen Beck would be proud, since he has been pushing this anti-Agenda 21 movement. But here we have, like many folks who pay attention to Fox News, just another example of Americans being highly vocal and active in American society but who pay virtually no attention to factual evidence. Scary.


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