Paul Pillar

Paying a Price at the Security Council

Western governments are in one sense entitled to be “outraged” (the word that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice used) over the vetoes Tuesday by China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council of a resolution condemning the Syrian regime's abuses against its own population. Although long negotiations already had watered down the resolution more than the United States wanted, Russia and China objected to the hint that was still in the resolution of possible future sanctions if Syrian behavior didn't change. Whether or not (as Rice charged, and as Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin vigorously denied) the Russians and Chinese are most interested in selling arms to Damascus, the vetoes can hardly be described as noble. The last two times that Moscow and Beijing cast Security Council vetoes in tandem—and neither one has exercised the veto very often in recent years—were to kill resolutions criticizing the military junta in Burma in 2007 and the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2008. How's that for attractive company, President Assad? Probably the Russian and Chinese motivations were a mixture of concern for their own relations with the Assad regime (possibly with an arms trade) and avoiding the sort of multilateral condemnation that could in the future be directed against some of their own activities (and that gets into anything China construes as “internal” affairs).

The unfavorable turn in the Security Council proceedings, however, can partly be blamed on the Western governments' own missteps. The resolution did not get the backing of any of the BRICS, which besides China and Russia also include Brazil, India, and South Africa. The BRICS pointed out that the earlier Western-proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya was supposedly about protecting endangered civilians but turned into a prolonged NATO intervention aimed at overthrowing the Libyan regime. The BRICS say they do not want something similar to happen with Syria. The BRICS have a point. Even if a NATO military intervention in Syria is unlikely, a similar bait-and-switch seems in the making with sanctions. The vetoed resolution hints at sanctions if the Syrian regime does not change its behavior, but Western leaders (including President Obama, after much hullaballoo on this subject in Washington) are talking about changing the regime, not just changing behavior. So the failure this week at the Security Council is partly a price Western governments are paying for two mistakes. One is a disingenuous resolution (and equally disingenuous rhetoric) about their intentions in Libya, and another is confusion about the purpose of sanctions (a topic I have addressed previously, with reference not only to Syria but to other target countries such as Iran).

It is hard enough to get the Russians and Chinese to cooperate on worthwhile multilateral actions. It is too bad when Western governments give them rationales and reasons to cooperate even less.