Syria, the UN and centre-left foreign policy.

 So here is the test case. How will/should the centre-left respond now that the Security Council has vetoed the UK’s preferred course of action on Syria?

Yesterday I kicked off the Fellowship’s Seminar Series by suggesting that traditionally there are three pieces to the jigsaw that makes up a distinctive centre-left foreign policy: a political imperative to advance the national interest; a moral imperative, which includes protecting human rights, but also involves a commitment to peace and social justice; and a legal imperative to respect the outcomes of multilateral decision-making processes as enshrined in international law. My opening contention is that Tony Blair was a norm entrepreneur who tried to shift the centre-left on to ground where the moral imperative was dominant. The main obstacles to an ethical foreign policy from his point of view were the realists who saw no national interest in doing what was right. He didn’t forget the legal piece of the centre-left jigsaw – which I argue is central to any legitimate claim to be acting on behalf of the international community – but he did trim the awkward edges off it, especially on Kosovo and Iraq. Now given that Iraq in particular went so badly wrong it begs the question, what would the Labour party do in the future if Cameron’s government supported the use of American force that did not have an explicit UN mandate? Would it oppose the government with a Suez-type cry of “law, not war”? Or would it follow Blair’s lead and find alternative ways of squaring what it perceives to be a moral imperative to use force with the legal imperative as set out in the UN Charter?

Libya almost exposed the issue. There were 5 abstentions (the BRIC’s plus Germany) but no veto. There’s a strong argument to say that NATO went beyond the legal mandate in 1973 but it never went back to the Security Council despite Russia’s and South Africa’s concerns. The Labour frontbench could easily support Cameron given that the political, moral and legal imperative seemed to be in alignment. However, I sensed from discussions at the Labour Party conference that the party has not fully resolved the question of what to do when the great power veto is exercised. When I posed the above hypothetical I got answers ranging from “I was so scarred by Iraq that I would never again back war without a UN mandate” (what Mark Phythian calls the restrictionist view) to “I would back military action if there was a general mood in favour” (a la Kosovo).

Now we have Russia and China exercising their veto on Syria, backed by abstention from BRIC colleagues India and Brazil, as well as South Africa and Lebanon. This shows there was a decent majority of support for the resolution (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, France, Gabon, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the US), so in one sense it suggests Russia and China had lost the argument and, given what appears to be happening in Syria, I cannot see why Russia and China would vote against a resolution, particularly because it had apparently been watered down so much. On this basis there’s a strong argument that this was an unreasonable veto. There’s also a sense that this vote was nothing to do with Syria. It was the sovereigntist nations drawing a line and making sure the new found enthusiasm for liberal interventionism stops right now. The Russians have said the resolution wouldn’t help a peaceful resolution of the crisis, which can be a valid reason for opposing intervention. But if this normative argument is being used instrumentally to stop its own human rights record coming under increased scrutiny then it only strengthens the argument that this was an unreasonable veto. Hillary Clinton is right. Russia and China should explain their vote to the Syrian people.

 There is potentially a lesson to be learned here. There is an argument – which was voiced at the international level by Russia and South Africa – that in Libya NATO did indeed go beyond the protection of civilians mandate contained in 1973. Libya is potentially a case of the Security Council getting something (regime change) it had not requested. This surely makes the sovereigntists even more cautious about passing a liberal resolution, even one as watered down as that which was voted earlier this week. If this is indeed the case (and Mark Kersten over at Opinio Juris suggests as much) then I think it reinforces the point that the legitimacy costs of going outside or beyond a UN mandate can come back to hurt the liberal agenda in the future. That does not necessarily mean regime change in Libya was wrong, but that there were legitimacy costs to pursuing that strategy under the cover of an ambiguous mandate.

Given that the draft resolution was only condemning the Syrian government it seems unreasonable for Russia and China to veto it. And given that this is a minimal form of intervention I don’t think there is any inconsistency with centre-left values of continuing to condemn Syria (i.e. doing what the Security Council said not to do). But I suspect there are lessons in this on how the political, moral and legal imperative interact.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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2 Responses to Syria, the UN and centre-left foreign policy.

  1. Pingback: A “no fly zone” for Syria? | The American Exception

  2. Pingback: David Miliband in Leeds | The American Exception

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