Renewal in the Shadow of Great Power Politics

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By Becca McBride

October 4, 2013

Something is broken in the United Nations system. I realize that I am not the first to notice this, nor can I offer the last word on the subject. However, events in the past two weeks have highlighted the underlying tension in the UN Security Council, a tension that we need to recognize in order to contribute to the debate about how to formulate and support effective foreign policy within the realities of a broken system. 

In September, the world’s leaders gathered to debate, discuss, and build consensus around solutions to international problems at the UN General Assembly meeting. The backdrop to this picture of multilateral engagement was the standstill in the UN Security Council on how to hold Syria accountable. President Obama’s insistence that any Security Council resolution must promise severe consequences if Syria fails to follow through on its obligation to identify and surrender its chemical weapons was met with President Putin’s refusal to support such a resolution. The final resolution, approved on Friday, September 27, promises unspecified consequences that will be decided at a later date if Syria is non-compliant.  This agreement, while touted as a diplomatic accomplishment, in reality merely defers a decision on how to hold Syria accountable. 

The UN Security Council’s mandate is to provide accountability and maintain peace by holding rogue states responsible for bad behavior, and it does so by outlining specific consequences for unjust actions. The United States sought to codify into a Security Council resolution the actual consequences if Syria does not live up to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Formulating clear consequences for Syria raises the stakes of compliance and reduces the possibility of long-term diplomatic gridlock while the situation in Syria arguably worsens. However, because Russia refused to accept a resolution to hold Syria accountable that would be legally binding, the resolution that both sides finally accepted promises still more deliberation on what it means to hold Syria accountable. 

This situation calls to mind the Biblical distinctions between following the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. In this case, President Putin wants to hold the United States to the letter of international law which calls for working cooperatively through the UN Security Council to resolve international disputes. However, his rejection of the accountability that a binding resolution with formal consequences would provide violates the spirit of the UN Charter that he uses to call others to account. 

As Christians, we should care about this tension. When it comes to upholding public justice and pursuing the common good, it is not enough for us or others to simply play by the rules of the game or to follow the letter of the law. As agents of renewal, we must continually examine the rules of the game to ensure that they are just and we must constantly compare the letter of the law to the spirit of the law to ensure that the rules are effective. If and when the letter of the law falls short, we must think of ways that justice can be pursued even in light of this failure. 

What is to be done?  Reform of the UN Security Council can only come at the hands of the very powers that fail to cooperate within the current system. Such reform seems unlikely in the near future.  Even more paralyzing is the fact that we, as regular citizens, do not have agency in reforming the current system. When our government works through a multilateral institution, this necessarily places our leaders in the difficult place between trying to please a public to which they are answerable and needing to negotiate with the leaders of other countries who may not be answerable to their publics in the same way.

But we should not despair, because there is a very important avenue for influence as the international community seeks to hold Syria accountable for past crimes and to prevent future atrocities. We can identify and support those who will facilitate the mandates of the UN Security Council. A Security Council resolution is only the starting point of accountability for Syria. Even more vital than a resolution from the Security Council demanding accountability are the days, weeks, months, and years of dedication needed to facilitate this compliance.  The process of ensuring compliance is not executed by the heads of states, but rather through the work of people who are dedicated to ensuring peace and promoting justice through their vocations. This is the channel through which scientists, project managers, analysts, and negotiators can become agents of renewal, even in light of a broken system. 

-  Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.