The United Nations operates on a failed theory of diplomacy that gives your opponent the benefit of the doubt that he wants the same thing as you.
The Syrian rebels are faltering. The Assad regime has taken control of more than half of the territory in eastern Aleppo that the rebels once held, and is now pushing hard to take back the rest, continuing its campaign of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, including hospitals and schools.
The ongoing crisis there reveals, once again, the fault lines in the United Nations and why it is doomed to fail in its mission to promote peace and protect human rights. The UN’s mistake is to presume that all countries have the same values, priorities, and goals.
On Monday, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in Syria that would have allowed humanitarian aid to reach eastern Aleppo. Russia cited concerns that they weren’t given 24 hours to review the document and that the resolution would undermine negotiations with the United States.
This excuse is, of course, a bald-faced lie. Russia has made and broken several ceasefires the United States has brokered, and strung along the negotiation process and Secretary of State John Kerry for months. This is also the sixth time Russia has vetoed a UN resolution on Syria in the past five years. Russia’s ongoing engagement in diplomacy is widely seen as a stalling tactic to give Assad time to retake territory and crush the resistance.
All World Leaders Do Not Want Peace
Russia also claims it is fighting ISIS, while really aiding the Assad regime’s attacks on rebels and the civilians caught in the crossfire. But Russia is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, giving them veto power and leaving the Security Council unable to act.
The UN, in working to resolve global conflicts, erroneously starts from the false position that all countries fundamentally want the same things for their people and for the world: an end to hostilities as quickly as possible and the prevention of human suffering. This simply isn’t true. While it may be true that universal principles about human rights and equality exist, it is false to say that these principles and values are universally held.
A cursory look at history tells us as much. During World War II, Japan’s government encouraged its people in the belief that it’s better to commit suicide than to surrender to the enemy. This led to women leaping off cliffs with their infants and civilians and soldiers alike blowing themselves up rather than surrendering to American soldiers.
Recently deceased Cuban dictator Fidel Castro pretended to be a savior of the people, but held them prisoner on an island with crippling poverty inflicted by a totalitarian communist state. North Korea today is a giant prison run by a psychotic despot, as it has been for nearly 70 years.
Not all countries value the same things. Not all governments care about human suffering. Not all of them care about free speech or economic freedom. Some leaders don’t care about merely retaining power; they prefer to keep power by crushing their enemies.
This is the problem with the philosophy of the UN. It’s based on the idea that if countries can just come together to work out their problems, they can find peaceful resolutions to all global conflicts. This premise informs the UN’s structure. Invite everyone to the table and everyone will walk away satisfied and the world will be better off.
But the reality is that permanent members on the Security Council, like China and Russia, often have something else in mind, rendering the UN impotent and ineffectual.
This Is a Fatal Flaw of Western Diplomacy, Too
The UN isn’t the only one making this blunder. It’s been the bedrock of much of Western diplomacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And it has had terrible consequences. Take, as an example, Germany’s rising aggression in the 1930s and the foolhardy diplomacy of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. When Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938 with a treaty signed by Hitler, he infamously declared that he’d secured “peace for our time.”
He took Hitler’s word that all Hitler wanted was to reunite the German-speaking peoples in Czechoslovakia by annexation. Chamberlain presumed that Hitler wanted the same thing as the rest of Europe: peace. A year later, Germany invaded Poland.
This philosophy of diplomacy has also been employed in many of the Obama administration’s foreign policy endeavors. Obama’s Iran deal was brokered under the assumption that what Iran wants above all else is economic prosperity for its people, just like all governments do. But the reality was and is that Iran is most concerned with regional hegemony and becoming a nuclear power, even if it means risking economic sanctions that will hurt its people.
This is one of the dangers of diplomacy: giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt that they want the same thing as you. Another word for it is naïveté.
Russia Is Using Its Power to Get What It Wants
Syria’s tactic of wearing down the rebels with incessant bombing is working. So why would Russia agree to a ceasefire now, when the Syrian regime seems so close to taking back control of eastern Aleppo and crushing the resistance there? And why would Russia, a country with an abysmal human rights record and an authoritarian government, care about civilian deaths in Syria as long as their man Assad retains power?
Countries that aren’t concerned with human rights or peace have little incentive to cooperate when their strategic gains, or those of their allies, are on the line. Until the UN and the United States learn this, they and we will keep brokering bad deals and giving aggressive countries a pass when they misbehave. And diplomacy will continue to be an effective stalling tactic for bad actors.