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Both U.S. and Sweden play ‘pretend’ on matters of war and peace

REUTERS/Anders Wiklund/Scanpix Sweden
President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Queen Silvia of Sweden as King Carl Gustaf of Sweden looks on during a reception at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on Thursday.

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.”

(Full transcript of the Obama Reinfeldt presser.)

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/06/2013 - 11:09 am.


    Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not a violation of international law. Notice how Obama, Kerry et al have used the term “international norms.” But the United States would be violating international law if it launches an unprovoked attack on Syria.

    *Syria never signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that outlawed the use of chemical weapons. Countries that ratified the treaty pledged to destroy their existing stockpiles.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/09/2013 - 10:54 am.

      how comforting

      I’m sure all those dead and injured chemical weapons victims and their friends and relatives will be happy to know that international law was not violated when their goverment gassed them. Have you got a point there? Might international law have been violated when the U.S. launched an unprovoked attack on, oh, say, Iraq in 2003, or is IOKIYAR?

  2. Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/06/2013 - 11:55 am.

    Once Again…

    “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.”

    “Impose peace.” I assume you mean with bombs, right? It takes a special kind of mind to NOT see the contradictory madness inherent in such a term. Doublespeak in its purest form. So thank you for that.

    On what planet is the world “outraged” by a lack of foreign troops in Syria? Here on Earth, the exact opposite is true. Truth is, the world is quite baffled by the Obama administration’s Syrian saber-rattling and even more baffled by the American media’s acquiescence to the administration. Not even the vampiric Brits are willing to go publicly along with this bloody scheme! When you get down to it, it’s really only the Obama administration and Israel vs. the rest of the world on this score. Even Bush enjoyed greater support during his Mideast psychosis.

    Meanwhile, the American press is scrambling to make it seem like only Russians are opposed to this proposed bombing raid. Not true at all. On a worldwide scale, the chest-bumping creepers promoting Syria’s destruction are in a clear minority. (This tend to be the case whenever the subject of dropping explosives on human beings arises).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2013 - 12:23 pm.

      The planet that you’re on

      From the Newsmax Web site:

      “Newsmax Media is a conservative American news media organization founded by Christopher W. Ruddy and based in West Palm Beach, Florida. It operates the news website and publishes Newsmax magazine.”

      And from Askville by Amazon:

      “Newsmax magazine and website are owned by Newsmax Media Inc., which is a privately held company. I finally found an old SEC registration statement from February 2002 when they were proposing an IPO of one million common shares @ $7/share to raise additional working capital. They withdrew the registration in 2003, so one supposes that they found the working capital privately. You can read over the registration statement at: It’s easier to give you the highlights, though.

      Christopher Ruddy (director, CEO, President) owns 32.6% of the common stock. He’s the guy who started the company, the CEO and President, and is also a leading contributor to the website and magazine. He’s a journalist who formerly worked for the New York Post as an investigative journalist, and is a special national correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
      Michael Ruff (director) owns 25% of the common stock. He is the owner of the Icarus Investments Ltd, a venture capital company, and was formerly the president of the Dallas real estate development company Lennox Properties. He was also on the board of directors of Texas Central Bank and Citadel Technology.
      Richard Mellon Scaife (not a director) owns 7.2% of the common stock. This may be the most interesting name on the list….Scaife is the heir to his mother’s vast Mellon family fortune, and is the publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He is a well-known supporter of any number of conservative causes, and was in some hot water in the 1972 presidential elections for contributing almost $1 million to Richard Nixon’s re-election. He was also one of the moving forces behind the Arkansas Project, which pushed the notion that a White House aide was killed to cover up some aspect of the Whitewater investigations (the more commonly accepted version is that he committed suicide), maintained that the CIA was used by the Clintons to run drug smuggling operations and which eventually pushed the Monica Lewinsky story into the Clinton impeachment trial. He’s the popular media choice for the villain behind Hillary Clinton’s remarks about a right-wing conspiracy.”

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/06/2013 - 03:30 pm.


        So you summarily dismiss information if it comes from a conservative news organization? No wonder your world view is so limited.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2013 - 09:08 pm.


          I just like to know where it’s coming from and what their agenda is.

          For instance, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is distinctly Conservative and I usually ignore it. On the other hand, their reportage is very professional and worth reading.

  3. Submitted by Sonja Dahl on 09/06/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    Treaties combined with deterrence have a history of success

    Thank you for this thoughtful column that finally talks about this issue in the correct context — that of international arms control. There is a lot of ignorance and skepticism about the arms control regime that needs to be addressed. The truth is that there have been many notable successes of international cooperation in regards to controlling the user of unconventional weapons. The most relevant perhaps to the current one is World War I, when chemical weapons were for the first time widely deployed in a major conflict. The outcome was so horrific that the Geneva Protocols of 1925 were adopted and, in spite of large stockpiles of chemical weapons, these weapons were not used on the battlefield in the second world war (with the exception of Japan in China). But keep in mind that, besides Geneva, there was also a significant deterrent effect in WWII due to the realization that any use of chemical weapons would be met in-kind. And, of course, at the end of WWII, an even more horrific weapon (nuclear) was developed and used on civilian populations. However, since 1945, nuclear weapons have not been used again. This is also a success of many negotiated arms control treaties AND the fact that, since the Soviets got the bomb, there has always been a deterrence due to the fear of retaliation. The question in Syria (who is a party to Geneva, but not the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention) is what is the deterrence against the use of these weapons? This is where a punitive strike could send that message that chemical weapons are off-limits to Assad for the duration of their civil war.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2013 - 01:00 pm.

      Fungibility of Death

      You’re points are good, but it should be noted that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far from the worst takings of human life in WWII (nor were they battlefields).
      That ‘honor’ would go to the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, and the destruction of Berlin.
      They were justified not because they reduced the ability to wage war (they didn’t) but because it was hoped that they would shorten the war. Dresden was also an act of revenge for Coventry.
      And we were able to destroy Baghdad without the use of nuclear weapons.
      I suspect that Assad could be deterred — the question is at what cost in civilian lives? Assad will fight to the last Syrian. I’m not sure that he would be deterred by the loss of civilian lives, particularly if they were not Alawite.
      The real deterrence here is the loss of his military capability, which would ultimately shake his grip on office.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/07/2013 - 08:03 am.

        Update Your History

        Paul, not to wander too far from the main topic, but the rape of Nanking gets the first prize. The Dresden bombing killed about 25,000 and Tokyo (around) 125,000. The death toll in Nanking was somewhere north of 250,00. Yes, it was over time but so was the firebombing of Tokyo. Also, I find it misleading at best to refer to Baghdad as having been destroyed. It’s not a place that I’d want to live, but the violence there doesn’t compare to the destruction that occurred in several cities during WW2.

        Wait, now we’re trying to shake Assad’s grip on office? I thought we weren’t looking at regime change. Are our objectives changing this fast or are we just making things up on the fly?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/07/2013 - 02:36 pm.

          Minor quibbles

          The ‘rape of Nanking’ preceded WWII (1937) and did not involve any sort of weapons of mass destruction; it was individual killings. If we include it we should also include the Holocaust.

          I’ll concede your point on Baghdad, although there have been estimates of child mortality resulting from destroyed infrastructure in the hundred thousand range.

          And I don’t recall saying that we should remove Assad from office or cause regime change. What I said our plan appeared to be was to weaken Assad -without- removing him from office, so that Syria would not be completely controlled by either of the two opposing parties, neither of which are up for any humanitarian awards.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/07/2013 - 03:39 pm.


          I’ve also seen statements that the number of deaths do to the incendiary bombing of Tokyo may have been seriously understated; based on the population density of Tokyo and the areas destroyed in the bombing.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/07/2013 - 10:42 pm.


            The official estimates are around 100k. I used the highest estimate that I’ve seen. These numbers, by the way, are not from one sortie but several months of bombing.

  4. Submitted by Sonja Dahl on 09/06/2013 - 02:22 pm.

    Do we want to cast aside these historic restraints?

    Paul, I understand your points and I hope you know that it is very difficult to cover a century of history in a few sentences, so no, I couldn’t put in too many specifics. The main argument I wanted to get to was in the subject line, which is that the international norms against these unconventional weapons have been quite successful. And I would argue that without these efforts to control certain weapons, we would not have seen this restraint. I could give many more examples where there was a specific war-fighting purpose for tactical nuclear weapons or chemical weapons but other weapons were used instead (e.g. the use of fuel-air explosives in the first Gulf War). Yes, Assad has killed many more people with conventional weapons and probably will continue to do so. But do we really want to “go there” as a civilization and cast aside these historic restraints on the use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons? What are the implications for future regional and global conflicts?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2013 - 06:57 pm.

      I would like to hope

      that international pressure will continue to restrain the use of chemical and biological weapons in these days of asymmetrical warfare. The problem is that these weapons are resource effective for terrorists; state supported and otherwise. I think that we can put Assad in the terrorist category even if he is a head of state.

  5. Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/06/2013 - 07:06 pm.

    Casting a Wide Net

    The bulk of my sources I’ve cited so far are far-Left (at least by Americans’ standards). I threw Newsmax a bone to demonstrate that I’m not cherry-picking from side of the political aisle. Moreover, progressive and international news outlets have made the same point, often more forcefully. Are you seriously refuting the assertion that Obama’s Syrian-saber rattling is wildly popular abroad?

    That said, you’re absolutely right to point out Newsmax’s bias. Please consider applying that same critical thinking to all media sources. (Particularly the American ones).

    • Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/07/2013 - 10:40 am.

      Self Correction

      That would be: “Are you seriously refuting the assertion that Obama’s Syrian saver-rattling is wildly unpopular abroad?” UNpopular. Emphasis on UN. My bad.

  6. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/07/2013 - 08:12 am.

    Skeptics on the Right

    We have (again) a situation where the idealists are being held hostage by those that are playing power politics. Frankly, if Russia and China are allowed to have veto power over what you do, then your ideals will usually suffer. *This* is one of the prime reasons why those of us on the right are skeptical of the UN.
    I’d also like to note that it’s easy for Sweden to stay out of wars. They’re tucked out of the way, without much international responsibility. Also, the way they kept this streak alive during World War 2 was by becoming a kind of client state of Nazi Germany. I don’t know how much pride they should take in that.

  7. Submitted by Sonja Dahl on 09/07/2013 - 10:00 am.

    Deterrence works much better with nations

    Heads of state are inherently more rational in calculating deterrence because it is clear at whom to direct the retaliation. My biggest concern is that, with the amount of inaccurate chatter around the issue right now, that if the U.S. strikes, the world may not recognize it as a clear response to the chemical weapons use by Assad, but simply “US imperialism” from the left or “Obama lying” from the right — especially when this type of chatter is loudest from US citizens and media.

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