Why has the relationship between Washington and Moscow not become more “normal” and permitted a greater degree of partnership in the Security Council? Reasons exist on both sides. But the world would be a better place if the US stopped trying to remake it in its own image and instead worked within the international community as part of that community.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
In the aftermath of World War II, the victors in the fight against the Axis Powers agreed to resuscitate the League of Nations in a new form. A new “United Nations” would focus on securing the hardwon peace through the five allies acting together to prevent the outbreak of further conflicts. They would form the core of a “security council” that would be the ruling body of the community of nations.
An additional ten countries would be allowed to fill slots on the council on a rotating basis and there would also be a general assembly of all sovereign states. But this Security Council would decide on inventions (under Chapters 6 and 7 of the UN Charter) to preserve the peace and the five would be permanent members with veto power.
The UN never really functioned as envisioned. The two “superpowers” – the Soviet Union and the United States – began a decades long “cold war” that led to frequent disputes and vetoes in the Security Council. Often it was one side resisting or vetoing a proposal by the other for intervention against one of its client states. When the Americans and Soviets did agree, the resulting Security Council mandate might be too limited, ambiguous or beyond the capability of the UN and the willingness of its members to actually implement. Nothing much changed even after the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. The inability of the US and Russia in 1999 to agree on what to do with Kosovo led to an unsanctioned NATO intervention and an eventual Security Council Resolution (1244) that was muddled, never completely implemented and without an exit strategy.
One might say that damage done to the workings of the UN during the Cold War was unfortunate but not surprising. However, US-Russia relations remained dysfunctional even after 1991 and continued to make difficult Security Council agreement on important matters, with the most recent example being Syria. Why has the relationship between Washington and Moscow not become more “normal” and permitted a greater degree of partnership in the Security Council?
Reasons exist on both sides. Vladimir Putin apparently finds it convenient to “confront” a powerful foreign force he can use to justify his actions against a democratic opposition. Until 9/11, many in the US national security sector also found it convenient to act as if the Cold War hadn’t ended. Seeing Russia as weaker but still useful as a “boogyman,” they marched NATO deep into the former Eastern Bloc while continuing the dominance of what Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. After 9/11 – and since President Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia – Washington sought limited cooperation with Moscow, especially on counter-terrorism. But friction between the two remains that leaves both unable to agree on much and the Security Council moribund.
This friction derives in large part from the US insistence on pushing it own “moral agenda” into the domestic affairs of other states. American foreign policy goes well beyond serving direct US national interests to include emphasis on supporting abroad its conception of democracy and human rights. This “support” – rhetorical and through sanctions and financial and technical “assistance” – may look very much like interference in domestic affairs in the target states. It certainly gives Putin a ready excuse to use against the very people the US says it wants to help.
This is not to say that the US does not have an interest in the spread of democracy and human rights around the world. A more democratic and just world would be better and safer for everyone. But Western democracy is built on economic prosperity and a deep historical experience. It cannot simply be “air-dropped” elsewhere on a US timeline. Democracy must arise from within societies and cultures – without “foreign” strings – to take real root. Progress may be uneven, halting and sometimes reversed. It may involve conflict that is unpleasant to watch. But the world would be a better place if the US stopped trying to remake it in its own image and instead worked within the international community as part of that community. Perhaps US policy should be more about “live and let live” rather than “you need to do it our way.” Perhaps it may even be time to think about the five giving up their Security Council veto. The international community might be more effective in its interventions when it is more democratic.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.