In deciding about matters of war and peace, Sweden puts (or pretends to put) its faith in a system that it (and everyone else) knows doesn’t really work, but that it wishes would work. (That system would be the United Nations Security Council system for outlawing war.) This helps Sweden continue its truly amazing streak of not having been in a war since 1814. (Yes, next August, Sweden will celebrate two centuries of staying out of war. So at least the Swedish system of staying out of wars is working. )
In deciding about matters of war and peace, the United States — or at least its presidents — pretend to rely on a system that doesn’t really exist, but which allows us to be at a state of pretty much perpetual low-level military conflict with someone, somewhere, occasionally spiking up to a state of small -to medium-size actual war without benefit of an actual declaration of war. (That system would be the war/peace system as written in the U.S. Constitution and as evolved — without benefit of actual amendment – in the 20th and 21st centuries.)
I mention Sweden, not just because I’m a Minnesotan but also because President Obama was in Sweden on Wednesday. At a press conference, Obama was able to compare notes with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on their two systems while discussing the U.S. plan to attack Syria.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Obama after their private meeting, Reinfeldt, who leads the Moderate Party (which I have seen described, fairly hilariously to American eyes, as the liberal conservative Moderate Party) spake thus:
“We have discussed a few foreign policy issues as well — the most topical, of course, being the situation in Syria. Sweden condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria in the strongest possible terms. It’s a clear violation of international law. Those responsible should be held accountable. Sweden believes that serious matters concerning international peace and security should be handled by the United Nations. But I also understand the potential consequences of letting a violation like this go unanswered. In the long term, I know that we both agree that the situation in Syria needs a political solution.”
Not everyone agrees on this (many on the right are huge skeptics of the value of the U.N.) , but I believe it would be wonderful if the U.N. actually functioned the way it was designed to function as a mechanism for marshaling and giving effect to world opinion, and as a mechanism for maintaining the peace of the world.
If the peace of the world was breached (according to the vision of the U.N. founders), the U.N. had powerful methods of stopping war by collective multinational action authorized and organized by the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council had, as its permanent members, five of the most powerful countries in the world, to wit: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France.
Under the U.N. Charter, nations can legally engage in war in only two circumstances: if they are defending themselves from an aggressor (in which the case, the aggressor would already have violated international law); or if they are contributing troops to a U.N. force taking collective action in a war to restore the peace under the authority of the Security Council.
Unfortunately, in retrospect at least, each of the permanent five Security Council members was given an absolute veto. The vast majority of the world’s nations could favor a collective action to oppose an aggressor or intervene to stop a civil war that was deemed to be a threat to world peace, but if the aggressor had a single friend in the world, who happened to be one of the Perm-Five, that single friend could veto a resolution and prevent the U.N. from authorizing collective action to intervene, punish the aggressor, restore the peace.
The system was assembled in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a war in which the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies. It’s true that the Cold War was rapidly taking shape. But in the aftermath of their joint effort to defeat Nazi Germany, perhaps it was possible that the two powerful nations would have enough of a shared interest in containing threats to world peace that they would cooperate to keep the peace.
The preamble to the U.N. Charter begins:
“We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind …”
Unfortunately, the Cold War took full shape very soon after the U.N. was created. Much of the world aligned with one superpower or the other, and it turned out that the United States and the Soviet Union could never agree on a collective action to punish an aggressor and restore the peace. The U.S. did have U.N. authority for its side in the Korean War, but that occurred only because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council at the time.
The other instance in which the Security Council system worked the way it was designed to work was the resolution authorizing an international force to evict the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, after Saddam has just taken that U.N. member off the map. Saddam Hussein’s aggression was so blatant, and his formerly pretty-good relationship with Russia was so tattered, that he lacked a friend on the Security Council willing to cast a veto to protect him.
But the U.N. has been around for 68 years now. The U.N. has been helpful as a peacekeeper and a negotiator. I’m glad it exists. But a great many bloody wars have been fought, and the key mechanism that the U.N. architects designed to keep the peace has been invoked just those two times.
Prime Minister Reinfeldt might wish it were otherwise, as do I, but what Reinfeldt call “the U.N. system for handling serious matters concerning international peace and security” is tattered and torn and hasn’t lived up to its founders’ vision.
In the current instance, unless Russian President Vladimir Putin has a change of heart about giving Syria cover at the Security Council (it could happen, I suppose, but at present the hopes are dim), the U.N. will not be organizing a multinational peacekeeping force on behalf of the outraged world that will impose peace on Syria and create conditions for the “political solution” to the civil war that Reinfeldt and Obama agree is necessary.
So those who oppose President Obama’s plan for bombing (or cruise missile-ing) targets in Syria to disincentivize Syrian President Bashar Assad from future uses of chemical weapons against civilians (and I am among the skeptics about the efficacy and overall wisdom of the bombing) need to accept that there is not a feasible alternative plan (at least not a plan involving Security Council action) on the table.
In fact, Obama, at the same joint press conference, spoke directly about the veto problem:
“We have gone repeatedly to the Security Council for even the most modest of resolutions condemning some of the actions that have taken place there, and it has been resisted by Russia.
“And do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I’m always hopeful.”
Reinfeldt weighed back in, continuing to pretend or hope that the U.N. “system” has an answer:
“I understand the absolute problem of not having a reaction to use of chemical weapons and what kind of signal that sends to the world in a time where we are developing our view on international law — not saying that you’re allowed to do whatever you like to your own people as long as it’s inside your own borders, no. We have these — we need to protect people. We need to look at the interest of each and every one. So this is the development we are seeing. That’s the same discussion we are having in Sweden.”
So I understand, especially the U.S. president needs to react; otherwise he will get another kind of discussion. But this small country will always say, “Let’s put our hope into the United Nations. Let us push on some more to get a better situation.”
By proposing to act without U.N. authorization, Obama is relying on the United States system which, at its core, is the constitutional system. When I started writing this piece, I meant to analyze that system, but this piece has gotten long enough. With your indulgence, I’ll come back to that next week.