The man who wrote the book on the U.N. Security Council tells how it’s handling Syria

September 11, 2013

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, speaks during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York in April last year. (Allison Joyce/REUTERS)

David Bosco is an assistant professor of international politics at American University's School of International Service. He is the author of "Five to Rule Them All," a history of the U.N. Security Council. He writes the Multilateralist blog for Foreign Policy magazine; you can find him on Twitter @multilateralist. We talked on the phone Wednesday morning about how the Syria situation is likely play out at the U.N. A lightly edited transcript follows.

So what would you say are the main issues the council is facing now?

I think what's going on now is that the French and the U.S. and the Brits really want to try to nail down this notion of Syria handing over its chemical weapons in the form of a binding Security Council resolution, and they want it to be under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which gives it coercive power. The Russians are quite hesitant about that, and would prefer this to be endorsed in a much more mild Security Council way via some kind of statement or weaker resolution.

They're trying to hash this out, and they'll see if they can try to get to a resolution. One thing that I think is important to note is that the council's line up is more favorable to the West than it has been in recent years. Some of the big emerging powers that are fairly skeptical of the U.S. and intervention generally — Brazil, India, etc. — are not on the council now, and so you have a lineup that's more favorable to the West. Many members are on the record endorsing a more aggressive response, including Australia and South Korea. The five veto powers are obviously key, but the overall council dynamics matter to some degree.

Speaking of veto powers, how do you think China's thinking about this? They've been quieter than Russia.

China and Russia vote together almost all the time at the Security Council, and it's very hard for me to imagine China and Russia parting ways on this. They have a de facto alliance on many Security Council issues, particularly regarding intervention in internal affairs. China's tone is very different. They're much less out front on this issue than Russia is, they're much calmer and less provocative than the Russians are, but if it comes down to it, they'll vote with Russia.

How important is it in practical terms for the resolution to invoke Chapter 7? Does it matter for the effectiveness of the disarmament regime?

Chapter 7 has become a key question at the Security Council because, in legal terms, it does affect the weight of the resolution. But in practical terms, of course, the Security Council does things under Chapter 7 all the time that it doesn't enforce or back up. There's nothing magical about Chapter 7. So I could actually imagine the U.S. agreeing to something without Chapter 7 so long as the language was tough enough.


U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix looks into the North Korean nuclear program. (Paramount Pictures)

What's the Security Council's track record like on these kinds of disarmaments? Iraq was a pretty different situation, but can it tell us anything here?

This is a very different situation, in that you would be talking about disarmament in the midst of a conflict, and that is a very different situation from Iraq. You had several different iterations of U.N. inspections in Iraq, but there was a lot of disagreement on the Security Council about what the inspectors should be doing, how hard they should be pushing, how much they should be engaging, etc. At the council, the broader political differences over policy toward Iraq often became questions about how much to back up the inspectors.

If you get people on the ground in Syria, you may start to have a replay of those debates, with the Western states saying we need inspectors to have full access everywhere, and others taking a very different line. It would switch from a question about force to a question of how active the inspectors are.

There's also the issue that the international norm on chemical weapons is perhaps weaker than that on nuclear nonproliferation.

Chemical weapons are certainly something that the international community has been engaged in through treaty-making, and obviously chemical weapons were part of the issue in Iraq, as well. It's true that it hasn’t been as much of a concern as nuclear weapons. With North Korea or Iran — which have consumed lots of Security Council attention -- it's nuclear technology that's at issue, but it's not unprecedented for chemical weapons to be the focus. In a broader sense, it's a little bit odd that the administration has focused in on the chemical weapons norm instead of the broader norms about protecting civilians and the responsibility to protect, and they're walking this fine line in picking out this one norm but saying they won't be engaged in defending other norms.

Why do you think the president picked that one?

I think weapons of mass destruction — and you can debate whether chemical weapons should really be in that category — certainly have been treated as a special issue by the Security Council, and there's ample precedent. I just think in moral terms it's a little bit strange to pick that out from the broader norms about protecting civilians. After all, protecting civilians was the basis of the Libya authorization -- not weapons of mass destruction, but protecting civilians. For her career, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has been devoted to averting mass atrocities, not just mass atrocities caused by certain weapons. And the worst mass atrocities of the last several decades were accomplished without WMD.


Late Libyan leader Moammar al-Gaddafi. (Ahmed Jadallah/ REUTERS)

Are there other differences between this and how Libya played out in the Security Council that you think are notable?

The situation was quite different in that Gaddafi was much more isolated at the international level. The relations between Russia and Syria are quite different. The Arab League involvement and the Arab League's hostility to Gaddafi also played a role. The fact that you had senior-level defections, the U.N. ambassador defecting, made it appear that the Gaddafi regime was perhaps crumbling. So for a variety of reasons it had less of the flavor of intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state, and more of the flavor of the international community preventing a last spasm of violence from a falling dictator.

So you know, different dynamics, and I think the Libya situation has impacted this situation to some degree. China and Russia say they believe that the authorization in Libya was abused and that makes them much more skeptical about granting authorization in the future.

Kosovo seems like another obvious precedent.

That was a situation where there had been a number of council resolutions on Kosovo, but the Western powers knew that they weren't going to be able to get explicit authorization for force. They didn't push it to a vote. They decided to circumvent the council.

Russia attempted to get a vote in the council condemning NATO's action, and that got rather robustly shot down.Some international lawyers have looked at that and said Russia actually helped bolster NATO's legal case by showing that most of the council didn’t see the NATO intervention as unlawful. After the air campaign in Kosovo, the Western powers came back to the council to get authorization for the stabilization force. Bypassing and then coming back to the council has been done several times.,That's what happened in Iraq, when the U.S. and U.K. came back to get broad recognition of the occupation authority.

So why do they come back? If they're going to attack anyway, what's the point of involving the council?

In previous situations I think the U.S. has been much more comfortable going around the council, but for the Europeans it's different. European public opinion is more legalistic, and there is strong belief that council authorization makes a difference between a legal operation and an illegal operation. For Iraq in 2003, it was because of the British that the U.S. pushed it as far as it did at the U.N. I would expect that dynamic might be playing out here.

At some point soon, the question might become, "Do you force it to a vote to compel Russia and China to veto, or go as far as you can and not push it to a vote?" And that's where the views of these nonpermanent members I was mentioning come into play. It matters if it's 12 to 2 with one abstention as opposed to 9 in favor, 3 or 4 opposed. It matters a little bit if the Russians and Chinese can be shown to be the obstacles. Even though in legal terms it has no meaning, in PR terms Western leaders may think it has meaning.

How is public opposition in the West to any military action -- not to mention the House of Commons voting down intervention and congressional opposition to it -- affecting how the council deals with Syria?

That's hard to know. In a sense it puts the Western powers in a more defensive posture, because it's apparent to everyone that their publics aren't behind them. That will make Russia more aggressive in its U.N. negotiations than it would otherwise be.

Do you think French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius's proposal to refer the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court for a possible war crimes prosecution has a shot?

i think that's dead in the water, and interestingly, I think it's not just Russia and China. It was interesting to note Samantha Power's speech, where she expressed a great degree of skepticism about whether an ICC role would be useful. And that makes me think that the U.S. is not very supportive of that either, and they're probably not supportive for a couple of reasons. There's the reason she articulated, but also, what if we want a negotiated solution where Assad disappears into retirement? So I would be very surprised if an ICC referral happens. There may be a reference to it in a resolution, a threat of referral.


Current U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power (left) and former ambassador and current National Security Adviser Susan Rice (right), with former national security adviser Thomas Donilon. (Saul Loeb/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Power's pretty new at her posting. Have you noticed differences in how she approaches the Security Council, compared to Susan Rice?

I'm not close enough to it to see what differences in style there have been, and I haven't heard much about interactions. But there's an enormous experience gap between [Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly] Churkin and Power. He has been a deputy foreign minister, he has been ambassador to several countries, speaks fluent English. In relative terms, she's a newcomer to this kind of diplomacy. [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov is also an old U.N. hand and has enormous experience in negotiating that trumps John Kerry's experience with that kind of thing. In terms of how much that matters, I don't want to overstate it; global power dynamics matter more.

Does the U.S. have any veteran diplomats it can turn to to pinch hit, who could match Churkin's and Lavrov's level of experience? Five years ago, you would have said Richard Holbrooke, but he's sadly passed.

Bill Burns, the deputy secretary of state, was often discussed as someone who might be a U.N. ambassador, so there are people who may get involved who have more negotiating experience. The U.S. deputy U.N. ambassador, Rosemary DiCarlo, is a seasoned Security Council veteran. This is not to say that Power won't do a great job, but there is an undeniable disparity in experience between the Russian and American ambassadors.

Anything else you wanted to touch on before we wrap up?

Just on the nonpermanent members — Argentina, which is a nonpermanent member, did not sign onto that statement that some of the G-20 members did. It would be interesting to see if it came down to it how Argentina would vote. Obviously, Azerbaijan has a close and complicated relationship with Russia, so I'd be surprised if they go far from Russia. You may see some abstentions. These high-profile votes can be distinctly uncomfortable for some nonpermanent members., Countries love to get on the Security Council, but sometimes an issue like this — which forces them to choose side s-- makes them wonder if it's worth it.

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