What if someone close to you was about to give birth and there weren’t any doctors around to deliver the baby?
What if in the midst of your panic you saw a veterinarian? Would you ask for help? After all, vets are doctors of a sort, and likely have experience delivering babies. If a veterinarian was the only option available, who wouldn’t approach him or her?
But what if things went wrong? Would you blame the vet? Would you condemn veterinarians as incompetent or useless?
Such a response is hardly different from what critics of the United Nations are doing when they criticize the organization’s inability to bring an end to the growing crisis in Syria: they are holding an organization designed for a somewhat different purpose to an unrealistic and indeed unfair standard.
The founders of the United Nations were guided by the assumption that any future conflict among the world’s greatest powers would inevitably lead to a third world war, and that such a war would eventually result in the destruction of all of humanity. To prevent such a conflict, they believed, it was crucial that – regardless of their opinions of one another – the most powerful states remain in constant dialogue and thus fully aware of each other’s intentions.
The great power veto at the UN Security Council does just that. Not only does it provide incentive for the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France to remain fully engaged members of a single world organization, it also serves as a largely effective mechanism to prevent any of them from launching a military initiative that one of the others might fundamentally oppose.
In other words, Moscow’s threat to veto resolutions in favour of a western intervention into Syria makes it clear to Washington and its allies that any such initiative risks expanding the scope and intensity of the conflict beyond the Middle East.
In establishing the veto system, the UN’s founders made a conscious decision to privilege the importance of international security over all else. That the veto might prevent action to stop a deadly civil war was, for all intents and purposes, the price to be paid to maintain the commitment of the most powerful states to the preservation of the broader world order.
It is clear that the situation in Syria had to come before the Security Council. And there is no question that, to this point, the organization has failed to protect the innocent civilians caught in the midst of the conflict, let alone restore any semblance of peace and order.
But to blame the UN for the lack of progress, or worse, to argue that its inability demonstrates its irrelevance to contemporary world affairs, is hardly any different from blaming a veterinarian for failing to deliver a child during a complicated birth.
The UN was not designed to solve crises like the one in Syria. It was intended to prevent a Syrian-type situation from escalating into a Western Powers – Eastern Powers world war. At that level, it has thus far succeeded.
Where does this leave the Syrians? The answer, in brief, is in a horrible position. The international community lacks the structures necessary to intervene effectively in civil conflicts on a consistent basis.
In times of exceptional collegiality among the permanent members of the Security Council, in conjunctions with an economic climate that enables states to support significant unanticipated military expenditures, the United Nations can play that role, and at times it has. But this is not one of those times.
Today, when one of the great powers prevents the Security Council from acting, the international community has one option: convince that power to change its mind.
In summary, the situation in Syria is terrifying, but the international community’s options are limited. Among them, blaming the UN for the failure to protect innocent civilians is the very worst. The solution must go through Russia, and the path to Russia is a diplomatic one.
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.