Hopes for a UN relaunch in Syria

Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order.  Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN.  If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.

Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues.  Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people.  But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.

The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem.  Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people.  Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).  Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria.  Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.

It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date.  In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.

Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law.  Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea.  A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs.  Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.

Ukraine after Crimean Separation

The West has mishandled its relationships with Ukraine and with Russia.  President Putin’s annexation of Crimea now looks irreversible – despite the West’s protests.   The West appears impotent, whilst President Putin has considerably increased his domestic popularity.  The West’s all-too-familiar catalogue of errors includes the failure to respect other countries as having equal rights, inconsistent adherence to international law, and an abject failure to think strategically – preferring to play for easy headlines at home.

President Putin has garnered critical media coverage in the West, and Western politicians have predictably postured – forgetting that they are in no position, morally or legally, to tell him what he ought to do.  Thinking of Russia as an enemy, and treating it like one, may be a popular attitude with Western voters but it is not a sensible way of conducting relationships.  It must have appeared to Russia that the West planned to woo Ukraine into joining the EU and possibly NATO.  It would be hard for Russia to accept having Sevastopol, which is important as a warm-water port, in a NATO country.  President Putin has been provoked into action.

As President Putin has pointed out, the West’s claim that he has broken international law is hypocritical.  And international law has become a toothless force, with a permanently-divided Security Council whose members are clearly pursuing their own interests rather than maintaining peace.

Ukraine’s interim government has no more legitimacy than the self-appointed government of Crimea.  The Kiev ‘government’ has made it clear that it is not looking after the interests of its Russian-speaking population – so it is hardly surprising that the latter have run for cover.  What is left of Ukraine needs an inclusive constitution which protects the interests of all its citizens – perhaps a federal structure would be appropriate, and it is not necessarily a disadvantage that Russia would favour such a solution.

The world is now understandably nervous about President Putin’s further intentions.  It has been pointed out that we seem to be slipping back inexorably into a new Cold War, and driving Russia into the arms of China.  A stable future for Ukraine would require some form of neutrality, as suggested by Anatol Lieven for example, but this might only be possible now for the rest of Ukraine – without Crimea.

The economic ties between Russia and the West should be mutually beneficial, not turned into weapons for sanctions.  The EU, NATO and Russia would benefit from a normalisation of relations.  The respective politicians have allowed their dislike of each other’s politics, and their desire to score domestic political points, to deflect them from policies that are everyone’s interests.  They should start to negotiate on Ukraine’s future, as equals – without posturing.

The Future of Ukraine


It isn’t easy to see how Ukraine’s future can now be determined by its people.  By rejecting a negotiated peace-plan, the protesters in Maidan Square have inadvertently (but predictably) brought Russia onto the stage.  Political opinion within Ukraine is increasingly polarised, partly because the parliament tried to disallow the use of Russian as a second language.

This piece is intended as a starting point for discussion, identifying the patterns of power involved.  It looks at the viewpoints of three actors:

The Ukrainian people, recognising that they are not united;

The West, recognising that the EU and the US have different issues;

The Russians, recognising that what suits President Putin may not benefit the population.

The three types of power being used are economic, political and military.  The legal dimension of governance seems to be in abeyance, both within Ukraine and internationally.

Economic Options

Western politicians are huffing and puffing, threatening economic sanctions.  This well-worn pattern of power ( would have entirely predictable outcomes: the economies of all the participants would be damaged, but the politicians would have covered themselves with the fig-leaf of being seen to do something.  This time, though, the economic outcome might be more damaging than usual – since Russia controls the gas-tap to both Ukraine and the EU, so economic retaliation is easy and is inevitable.

Political Viewpoints

Much has been written about divisions among the Ukrainian people.  The protesters in Maidan Square might say that they want a united Ukraine, but Ukrainians in the east of the country don’t feel obliged to comply with a west-facing interim government that they didn’t elect.  Perhaps each department of Ukraine, or at least the Crimea, should be offered a referendum, asking people whether they would prefer to become a satellite of Russia or whether they would prefer strong links to the EU.  This approach might lead to the peaceful division of Ukraine into two separate countries – and they could divide the national debt in proportion to their size.

President Putin has already gained strength from the situation, and the idea of punishing him is merely comic.  He has faced down protests from the EU, the UN and the US – so he appears to the Russian population as a strong leader (an image he is carefully burnishing).  If sanctions are applied, he can blame the economic damage on Western aggression; the external threat from the West will help to unite the country behind him in a familiar pattern of power (6.3.6).  He will be politically strengthened within Russia, and he doesn’t care about his popularity in the rest of the world.  His country will lose by its reduced international respectability, but most ordinary Russians will not be able to assess the damage that he has caused.

The West has already been damaged.  The Washington Post, previously a supporter of President Obama, has condemned his foreign policy as being “based on fantasy”, because he is reducing troop levels and he doesn’t appear powerful.  US foreign policy has not completely adjusted to the realities of the 21st century: it has rightly discarded military force as its preferred policy option, but it is still trying to exercise global leadership by exceptionalism – instead of what has been described as “exemplarism”: throwing its weight behind a pattern of power that this website calls “responsible global citizenship” (  The EU also lacks a coherent foreign policy; its only formula for relationships with its neighbours appears to be to offer them membership.

Military Options

Many Russians, including President Putin, regret the collapse of the USSR; his actions now indicate a desire to return to the simple opposition of the Cold War.  NATO is deciding how to respond.  Moving more force to the area and setting up new bases would seem to be the heaviest response that they could safely make at this stage.  It is clearly important to prevent Russia from annexing its neighbours without their consent and, since neither America nor Russia respects the UN or fully supports it, a restart of the Cold War now looks all but inevitable.


Eventually there will have to be a political resolution to this crisis.  Splitting the country seems inevitable, unless the interim government is prepared to return to the negotiated peace plan (which President Putin has indicated that he would still accept).  A new peace plan would be much more difficult to negotiate, because the situation is now more polarised than when the previous one was negotiated.

The protesters have the right to expect President Yanukovich to stand trial, for the deaths of the protesters and for corruption – given the well-publicised opulence of his mansion.

America and Russia ought to negotiate a better arrangement than restarting the Cold War.  Reform of the UN, particularly of the Security Council, is necessary.  Since both America and Russia wield vetoes they can act with impunity, and both of them have repeatedly failed to comply with their obligations under the UN Charter.

The US and Cuba

Both Americans and Cubans would benefit from a better relationship between their two countries – but Congress will probably prevent this, to judge by Republican reactions to Tuesday’s handshake between Presidents Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.  Yet again, politicians are not working in the interests of ordinary Americans.

John McCain criticised the handshake, making the wholly inappropriate remark that “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler”.  He was attention-seeking and posturing.  Cuba does not represent a security threat to either America or its neighbours, and it is against America’s interests to needlessly antagonise Raul Castro by comparing him to Hitler.

From an economic perspective, both countries would benefit from an end to American sanctions.  They are hurting the lives of ordinary Cubans, and estimates of the sanctions’ annual cost to the US economy “range from $1.2 to $3.6 billion”.  Neighbouring countries should be prime export markets for each other.

Politicians impose sanctions to make themselves look right-minded and decisive.  In practice these sanctions strengthen Raul Castro’s grip on power by enabling him to blame America for the state of Cuba’s economy and giving him the political legitimacy of a leader who is struggling against an external enemy (6.3.6).

If American politicians were really trying to serve the interests of ordinary Americans they would stop posturing and start to negotiate with Cuba:

    • America’s security would be better served by using soft power‘ within the context of normal diplomatic relations.
    • Americans are indignant about the imprisonment of the American aid-worker Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009.  The most likely way of freeing him is through diplomatic negotiation.
    • Cuba has rightly been criticised for its human rights record, but the best way of applying pressure would be through negotiation – perhaps offering the loosening of sanctions as an inducement.

Instead of criticising President Obama for shaking hands with Raul Castro, Americans should be applauding any sign of a long-overdue improvement in relations between the two countries.

American moral authority

The Economist asserted that “Meeting Mr Assad’s atrocities with appropriate force will help to rebuild American moral authority in the world” (Leading Article, 7 Sept: Fight this war, not the last one).  It is worth asking within which constituency “American moral authority” might be rebuilt.

From one Western perspective, as put forward by The Economist and others, a strike on Syria is seen as necessary for America’s credibility as “the world’s policeman”.  It would also help to assuage the moral indignation that people rightly feel about the use of chemical weapons: people could say that they had not condoned the use of chemical weapons – they had ‘done something’.

Another Western perspective, dismissively referred to in the article, is “an abiding scepticism about the use of intelligence and the purpose of intervention”.  Voters can be excused for such scepticism, given the sorry record of previous costly and counter-productive interventions.  If the purpose of bombing Syria were to improve international security, then it could be criticised on at least three counts: it is risky because the outcome is unpredictable, it increases resistance to the West, and it undermines the UN.

It is time for the West to consider how it is seen by the rest of the world.  A “reaffirmation of Western values” implies regime change in Iran and Syria (and in many other countries, including China), so those countries see America as a threat to world peace.  America is also openly trying to protect Israel’s interests, so it cannot be seen as “the world’s policeman” – who would have to be neutral – and it cannot legitimately punish infringements of human rights.  That is the function of the UN.

“Moral authority” should not be purely self-interested.  A sincere attempt to work towards strengthening international law would win much more support in the rest of the world and would gain considerable support in the West.  A stable international arena, rather than one which is “inherently anarchic”, would suit everyone’s long-term interests.

President Putin is cleverly leaving open the door to reaching agreement in the UN Security Council.  If he really believes that President Assad did not give authorisation to the use of chemical weapons, he would not oppose an immediate ceasefire whilst the facts are established.  The criminals, whoever they are, could then be brought to book in the International Criminal Court and peace negotiations should commence.

The only certain outcomes of a bombing campaign in Syria are that a few people (not a majority) in the West would feel better for a while, and that hostility to America and its allies would increase.

Proposed Intervention in Syria

There are obvious comparisons between the current considerations being given to intervention in Syria and the previous political processes which led to the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003:

  • The UN Security Council is unlikely to permit an intervention in Syria, just as it refused to permit the interventions in Kosovo and Iraq.  Russia and China would use their vetoes.
  • A long-range bombing strike against Syria’s chemical weapons capability is being compared to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo: intended to help civilians, but illegal in international law.
  • The Western political rhetoric is about military intervention, not about treating the use of chemical weapons as a crime which could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.
  • As a result of opposition pressure, the British government is waiting for UN weapons-inspectors to establish the facts – unlike the political impulsiveness of the decision to invade Iraq 10 years ago without waiting for proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
  • The American government has talked itself into having to make an intervention in Syria, but there is disagreement about how heavy it should be and it might not be popular.

There would be risks attached to any intervention, especially without UN agreement, but it is reported that “The United States, Britain and France say they can act with or without a U.N. Security Council resolution”.  There would be less risk if a reformed UN could prevent a government from harming its own citizens.

Unresolved issues in use of drones

In Thursday’s address at National Defense University in Washington DC, President Obama defended the use of drones.  Whilst announcing some welcome restrictions on their use, particularly in banning the use of signature strikes, he still has not addressed several outstanding issues:

  1. Collateral damage is unavoidable.  According to one report: “US drone strikes have killed up to 3,581 people in Pakistan, including as many as 884 civilians and 197 children since 2004”.
  2. The propaganda impact of using drones, as addressed in the previous post on this website, has the effect of recruiting new terrorists at the same time as removing others.
  3. The use of drones amounts to judicial murder.  The victim has not been brought to trial in a court of law.  The ‘city on a hill’ is setting a bad example to other countries.
  4. Often there are alternative ways of containing a terrorist threat.  Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an American citizen killed by a drone strike in Yemen, had previously been in federal custody.  His obituary shows that one of his most dangerous aspects was his influence on other people: he was a hate preacher.  Incitement to others to commit a crime is itself a crime.  If it was thought that a prosecution would have been unsuccessful, perhaps on the grounds of suppressing freedom of speech, this amounts to a very dangerous distortion of values.  How can it be just to kill somebody for what he says, without having first put him on trial, and yet it be considered unjust to prevent him saying it?  And it would have been far better to have prevented him from inciting violence than to kill him afterwards by violent means.  The right to freedom of speech has to be set against other people’s right to life, as discussed in the book Patterns of Power (5.4.5).
  5. Following America’s highly successful demonstration of the effectiveness of drones for killing people (for whatever reason) the technology is becoming popular.  Hezbollah is now using drones, although Israel was able to shoot one down.  China is now investing heavily in the technology.  There is clearly an issue of drone proliferation and a lack of agreement on guidelines as to their use.  This matter needs to be pursued at the United Nations and both America and China should agree to be bound by whatever is agreed.  Hezbollah would not pay any attention to the United Nations, so the agreed guidelines would have to include a strategy for reducing the threat presented by terrorist use of drones.

Peace and Strength

We have been reminded that Ronald Reagan advocated “peace through strength”, which included the twin policies of deterrence and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Deterrence relied on ‘mutually-assured destruction’: it sent the message ‘if you strike us, we will strike you back’.  This policy was successful against Russia because Russian cities would have been obliterated in the event of nuclear war and the Russians didn’t want to take that risk.  The international situation has now changed, though, with the advent of Al Qaeda.

Deterrence would never work against Al Qaeda for two reasons.  Firstly, the organisation is so dispersed that it does not present a target which could be struck with nuclear weapons – so it is an empty threat to say that one would strike back.  Secondly, we now know that some of these terrorists want to die because they believe that they will go to heaven.

The SDI is similarly less effective against some of America’s current enemies.  Al Qaeda uses suicide bombers and doesn’t yet use inter-continental ballistic missiles.

President Obama has realised that for America to respond to today’s situation it is appropriate to use soft power in addition to maintaining some elements of the Cold War policy.  Islam is a peaceful religion but Muslims are encouraged to go to war if they are attacked or perceive themselves to be under threat; it is therefore necessary for America to be seen to be working for international peace rather than to be seen as an aggressor.  America is able to act with international approval when it uses its strength to defend itself, to defend its allies, or (with UN approval) to protect vulnerable groups.  Perhaps it is time to update the wording of the motto to “peace and strength”.

Drone strikes

As reported by HuffPost, drone strike limitations are being considered by Congress.  The article doesn’t mention one very good reason for limiting the use of drones: their propaganda impact.  As reported in the book Patterns of Power (7.4.3), drones cause a lot of civilian deaths.  Al Qaeda is able to recruit more terrorists by reporting that Americans are killing Muslim children.