The Veto Point

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"The Veto Point"

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Adam Kushner has an interesting interview with Randy Scheuneman in Newsweek in which Scheunemann gets at an important issue:

[The UN is] an important organization that does some things well, but in addressing certain issues it doesn’t do well. If you look at Bosnia, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Burma—because of the veto power of Russia and China, the U.N. would be incapable of taking effective action in places where Russia or China see their interest in protecting the world’s most odious regime. That’s why McCain has called for a league of democracies.

There are a few things to observe here. One, even though people say this all the time, it’s not actually the case that it was impossible to secure U.N. authorization for military action in Bosnia. The Clinton administration sought, received, and used such authority though the mission was operationally undertaken by NATO rather than under UN administrative auspices. But the point about the veto is well-taken. The UN Security Council mechanism by design prevents any country from taking action that is deemed contrary to the vital interests of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, or France. This causes some very real problems. It’s important to note, however, that it’s a completely two way street and, historically, the U.S. does more vetoing than any other country. I think it would make a lot of sense for the United States to propose shifting the Security Council from a unanimity rule to some kind of qualified majority rule. But what Scheunemann seems to be contemplating (a world in which the US does get to protect its vital interests, but Russia and China don’t) is going to be a non-starter in Moscow and Beijing for obvious reasons.

It’s a framework for new great power conflict. And, of course, it’s not going to actually stop Russia and China from trying to advance their interests. If the U.S. were to try to invade Burma in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition, in the context of new great power tensions, you’d just wind up with a bloody proxy conflict not with vast new humanitarian benefits. The problem, at the end of the day, is with the underlying pattern of facts — SLORC is terrible, Burma is close to China, China sees defending Burma’s sovereignty as important, and China is a big and important country these days. Given those facts, there’s no great procedural fix no matter what you do with the UN Security Council. But the Security Council mechanism, as currently operating, has a lot of value in other domains that would be lost if we cast it aside in pursuit of a fantasy that doing so would somehow allow us to completely brush off opposition of other major countries to certain proposed military adventures.

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