How Syria's Tragedy Could Remake the UN

The Future of American Power
Feb. 5 2012 10:15 AM

How Syria's Tragedy Could Remake the UN

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Her generation will remember how the "great powers" voted in yesterday's UN Security Council showdown over Syria.

Photograph by Yasser al-Zayyat, AFP/Getty Images

The veto by Russia and China of an Arab League plan to prevent Syria's violence from spiraling into a full-fledged massacre of those demanding to be treated with dignity will be remembered by Syrians of all stripes for a generation. The majority of the country, which has pleaded for pressure from outside to stay the hand of the murderous Assad dynasty, now knows where its friends stand; so, too, the regime, given the green light by Moscow and Beijing to "restore order."

Michael Moran Michael Moran

Michael Moran is an author and geopolitical analyst.

Whatever ugliness unfolds next for the unfortunate Syrians, the world can do itself a big favor by remembering this latest failure of character by the UN Security Council. It's not always the Russians or the Chinese - the U.S. casts its fair share of narrow, paranoid vetoes in the Council chambers, as do the British and French. But if the world wants a Security Council that works, the solution needs to be led by the U.S., and it needs to happen before American power erodes much further.

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The Security Council remains the most obviously flawed major global institution in the world, reflecting the world of 1945 (or, at best, 1979 when China assumed Taiwan’s seat). Efforts to bring the Security Council into synch with the 21st century fail largely because of the “veto” held by five nations – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China – which cannot agree on the set of new members that could be permanently at the top table.

Like trying to get the U.S. Congress to cut its own pay, the incentives are all wrong and the power in the wrong hands to make progress. Additionally, reform proposals get lost in a thicket of national jealousies when they focus on adding new permanant members rather than fixing the dynamic which already exists. Sure, Brazil, India, Japan, Germany and perhaps others should have a voice. But their voices won't make a difference if current rules apply. Adding all of them wouldn't have saved a single Syrian from the onslaught yesterday's vote will unleash.

The solution is obvious - and like all good solutions, it will require a long-view and self-sacrifice on the part of the U.S.: eliminate the veto. The idea that any power should preempt a majority of the planet’s most powerful states simply by issuing a veto is the most egregious of all the anachronisms that have survived at the U.N.

The United States routinely finds itself backed into a corner on issues involving Israel, which, rather than being resolved through negotiations, wind up unresolved and subject to Washington’s imperious “no.” This veto power – far more than the theater of the absurd that is the General Assembly – do more to undermine the institution than any other single factor.

Once vetoes are gone, the addition of a set of emerging powers and a consolidation of the French and British seats into a single EU vote would be possible. Japan, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt and perhaps South Africa added as permanent members would force real negotiations on the world’s most important issues, transforming the United Nations from a sideshow to the main show.

In such a forum, the United States’ ability to form coalitions and mediate disputes would be amplified, and while it would lose votes, too, this reform of the Security Council would stand as the ultimate democratizing moment of America’s years at the top of the heap. And those who fear setting inconvenient precedents -- like taking action against dictators massacring their own citizens - will simply be out of luck. And those who face the regime's tanks in Syria will not have died in vain.