“Enthusiasm. Disillusion. Realism. This has been the history of the United Nations over the last five years.” That was the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s summary of his tenure as secretary-general when he had to quit the UN under American pressure in 1996. It was a diplomatic understatement. During his time in office, he was faced with the Somali debacle, Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre. It is sadly ironic that Boutros-Ghali’s death this month has coincided with another period of profound disillusion at the UN.
The crisis unfolding around Aleppo and in northern Syria could do as much damage to the UN’s credibility as its failures in the 1990s. In contrast to Bosnia and Rwanda, there are no peacekeepers on the ground to take the blame for the crisis, but Russia has abused its status as a permanent member of the Security Council to create political cover for its air campaign, which is helping the Syrian regime encircle Aleppo and decimate rebel groups, by manipulating the UN-led peace process to its military advantage.
While Moscow claims it is still committed to a ceasefire, this position unlikely to prove credible or sustainable. And it is difficult to see how US or European officials can place further trust in Russian commitments at the UN. If the West and Russia can no longer bargain over Syria through the Security Council, it’s equally hard to believe that they can or will try to resolve other major crises in New York any time soon.
The UN has already suffered immense reputational damage over Syria, as Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed Security Council resolutions targeting President Bashar al-Assad and some of the organisation’s best mediators – including Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and current envoy Staffan de Mistura – have failed to put a stop to the war.
Yet two months ago, it seemed possible that the UN could at last bring the slaughter to a conclusion.
On 18 December, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, outlining plans for “a ceasefire and parallel political process” to resolve the conflict. Western diplomats seemed genuinely optimistic that, having stalled and equivocated over previous peace efforts, Russia was finally willing to make UN-led negotiations in Geneva a success. This looked like a much-delayed reward for the West’s diplomatic persistence. Britain and France have tried to manage the crisis through the UN almost since its inception: London first floated a Security Council resolution over the crisis in the summer of 2011.
The US was initially wary of working through the UN, hoping for a backroom deal with Russia over Assad’s future instead. But over time, the Obama administration has increasingly invested in managing the crisis with Russia through UN-based mechanisms. At times this has involved sealing major diplomatic deals, such as Resolution 2118 of September 2013 authorising the mission to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. At other times, it has meant using the UN as the formal convener of talks in Geneva, Vienna and other pleasant cities, aimed at maintaining a minimal common front with Russia.
UN officials and friendly diplomats argue that this cannot really be classed as “UN diplomacy”. It has largely been bilateral Russo-American diplomacy with a thin veneer of multilateralism to legitimise it. A few other members of the Security Council have attempted to lead on aspects of the war: Luxembourg and Australia did an unexpectedly good job of pushing resolutions forward, urging greater humanitarian access in Syria while they were temporary members of the Security Council in 2013-2014. Parts of the UN system have tried to highlight the horrors of the conflict. A Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council recently published powerful evidence of torture and murders by Assad’s security services.
But it has long been clear that the UN’s role in finding a political solution to the conflict rests on Moscow and Washington’s willingness to collaborate. This is not necessarily a bad thing. While the UN is generally judged on the performance of its mediators and peacekeepers, its political credibility is rooted in its strongest members’ willingness to work through it. Since the end of the Cold War, many analysts have assumed that a weakened Moscow has a special interest in keeping the Security Council relevant.
“Moscow regards the veto power on collective decisions that it enjoys at the Council as a guarantee that its national interests will be safely protected, at least legally”, Dmitri Trenin has recently observed.
The Obama administration’s efforts to channel diplomacy over Syria through the UN have reflected a desire to accommodate Moscow’s sensitivities. Yet,as I noted in an ECFR paper last June, Russia has exploited Washington’s commitment to the UN by “(i) entangling the West in fragile peace initiatives that have little genuine chance of success and rely on Moscow’s goodwill; (ii) dispensing more-or-less illusory concessions on minor issues to appear constructive; and (iii) sending dark signals that, unless it is listened to, it may go on a diplomatic rampage and start blocking Western proposals far more brutally”.
Tragically, Moscow has repeated these tricks in the negotiation and implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254. In talks in the run up to the resolution in December, it apparently signalled its readiness to help ease Assad from office, while continuing to plan and execute operations that have bolstered Assad’s forces. Since then, Russia has facilitated aid deliveries to a number of besieged cities inside Syria, temporarily relieving the suffering of inhabitants but arguably distracting from broader political issues. Worst of all, it ramped up its air support to the Syrian offensive around Aleppo before and during peace talks in Geneva a few weeks ago, effectively rendering the entire process null and void.
Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called out Moscow, accusing it of being “unfaithful” to Resolution 2254 and making it “extremely difficult” to progress diplomatically. It appears that Moscow signed off on Resolution 2254 to lull the West into a false sense of hope before going on the offensive.
Russian officials can counter any criticism by holding up examples of the US and Europeans having used similar tactics in the past. The US and UK purported to want Security Council support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, before going ahead with it regardless. Britain, France and the US made a huge push for Resolution 1973 authorising the use of force to protect civilians in Libya in 2011, and then pushed on to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.
From Moscow’s perspective, a little bit of hypocrisy over bombing in Syria is just a footnote to these more egregious Western abuses of UN processes. European and American diplomats have every reason to be disillusioned with Russia over its behaviour in Syria, but the disillusion goes both ways. If the Syrian government’s current Russian-backed offensives culminate in the fall of Aleppo, or more likely set the stage for a prolonged siege and the destruction of other rebel groups elsewhere in northern Syria, it will only exacerbate this mutual loss of trust. And as the two sides lose whatever remaining faith they have in each other’s willingness to cut real deals at the Security Council, the UN’s overall stature will decline.
We could, at worst, be approaching a moment that I described in December as “the breaking of the UN”: a situation in which, just as after Rwanda and Srebrenica, “broader disillusionment with the Security Council and doubts about its future” rapidly undercut the organisation’s credibility, making big power deal-making much harder to achieve as trust quickly ebbs away. As Boutros Boutros-Ghali learned, to his cost, in the 1990s, major powers can and will cut their stakes in the UN in such bleak circumstances.
This is ugly news for the Obama administration, given its investment in the UN route to date. The next US president is unlikely to work through the Security Council and UN envoys as assiduously as Obama has, but this is potentially bad news for Russia, which will lose some of its diplomatic room for manoeuvre if the West is less willing to parlay in New York. Finally, this is disturbing for European powers – including but not only Britain and France – which benefit from their outsized influence in the UN system.
After disillusion, as Boutros-Ghali noted, comes realism: Whatever its failings, the UN will retain some long-term value as a negotiating venue of the last resort over cases such as Syria. But Russia’s abuse of Resolution 2254 marks a moment at which even the most ardent supporter of the UN must ask what the institution is for – and whether the Security Council is about to suffer a massive crisis of confidence.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.