By Gautam Adhikari
06 September 2013
To bomb or not to bomb may be the question. But it’s worth examining how this dilemma revolving around Syria today encapsulates an evolving situation of confusion and disorder in the management of global governance.
Many pundits in the US see President Barack Obama’s style as Hamlet-like in its indecisiveness and changing positions. Others retort he intellectualises problems and ponders over decisions precisely because, yes, he can, unlike his predecessor George W Bush. Taking America to war once again in the Middle East is no trifling matter. War requires careful thought especially when most Americans don’t want it.
Public opinion polls have shown a significant majority of Americans to be against war over Syria, even if it means a limited bombing campaign from the air with no boots on the ground. That may be one reason why Obama has gone to the US Congress for authorisation. That way he can argue that he sought the support of the people’s representatives if indeed he gets Congressional approval.
Let’s see how that gamble will turn out. Meanwhile, Obama’s quandary over Syria raises several sets of questions for America and the world. Let’s look at just two.
One is on accountability. Governance, even the global kind, rests on the principle and effectiveness of accountability. Assuming there is compelling evidence of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against rebels, and many led by Russia say they need more proof, how exactly does the world make the Bashar al-Assad regime pay for violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 UN ban on the use of chemical weapons? Global treaties are worthless without accountability.
Obama asserts that Assad has crossed a red line on this and consequently must be punished, at the very least by a limited air strike. Should that strike be carried out by the US, accompanied by France and Turkey, with virtually no other nation militarily involved in the fight, now that even Britain has opted out of any such engagement?
Not so fast, say several nations, including India, as well as a few international law experts in the US. Go to the Security Council and get its approval before launching an attack. Any unilateral strike would violate the UN charter that prohibits the use of military force without UN approval except in self-defence.
That brings us to a second set of questions. Is the UN effective in ensuring global discipline? Is the structure of a body created in 1944 any good for today’s world?
In fact, that UN structure, which gave permanent veto power in the all-important Security Council to just five nations that happened to be on the same side in World War II, is ludicrous and has passed into geriatric impotence while handling today’s global crises. In a vastly altered world, the UN doesn’t allow a serious voice to Germany and Japan, which were defeated in 1944 but should today be central to decision-making on global security, or to India, which wasn’t a nation in 1944 but must now be heard as one of the world’s only two billion-strong countries.
It’s no surprise therefore that the UN rule against the use of military force except in self-defence has been ignored numerous times since 1944 in the name of global concern masking naked national interest. Those five nations, when they vote in the Security Council, rarely do so solely to uphold global virtues; their particular national interests influence voting patterns heavily.
It often depends on who is in power where. When a UN consensus is achieved in a few cases, it happens because the government in power in a veto-wielding country sees international action as working in its specific interest. Global concern was the cover under which the Bush administration argued its dubious case before the UN for invading Iraq in 2003. In the case of Libya in 2011, Dmitri Medvedev was in charge in Moscow; he saw cooperation with the UN as not harmful to Russia’s interest. Vladimir Putin sees it differently for Syria. He uses his veto power.
It may be time to overhaul the architecture of global governance. The failed League of Nations gave way to the UN. Can’t the UN be redesigned into a truly effective world body?