Last Saturday, Russian troops marched into the Crimea, a Russian-speaking region of the now-unstable Ukraine, and it looks unlikely that they will stop there. Odessa is another Russian-speaking part of Ukraine that Vladimir Putin has his eye on, and Putin has done very little to disguise his ambition for empire. The unapologetic and belligerent nature of this invasion has inspired an emergency convening of the United Nations Security Council, at which member nations will discuss possible recourse. But it is my view that the time has come for the Security Council to be revolutionized.
It is not hard to imagine a new era in international relations: Cold War II. Our recent skirmishes in the desert and the guerilla armies of our opposition would be reduced to historical memory. The rise of a new despot in Russia, the emergence of China as an economic power and the old alliance of those nations left over from the Soviet Era could mean a powerful new international enemy for the United States and her allies. These two nations — the most likely future violators of international law — are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and each holds an unimpeachable veto for any and all internationally sanctioned military action.
Moreover, when I write “international law,” I use a resoundingly regrettable term. There is no international law. The United States is often accused of being the “world police,” or of waging “unlawful, unilateral military campaigns,” but these unfortunate arrangements are de facto requirements of the U.N. The Security Council was originally made to be slow to action; fresh from the wounds of WWII, we wanted a system wherein only the most resolutely justified military actions are sanctified by international agreement. Accordingly, Russia, China, France, the U.K. and the U.S. were all given absolute veto power on any matters involving the use of force. But the problem is this: Russia and China see the West as their arrogant competitors for dignity. They oppose the Western position almost 100 percent of the time, even on matters where they have no apparent stake in the outcome (in Syria, for instance). This means that international law has no enforcement mechanism, because every time the Security Council brings forward a vote, there will be at least two nations willing to veto. The only possible enforcement left for crises are unilateral actions, particularly on the part of the United States, whose military is strong enough to act alone. And so, while the well-intentioned diplomats of the postwar period were wise to want a system slow to action, they were foolish to create a system that never moves to action at all.
It seems to me that a fix could be relatively simple. Others who have recognized this problem have gone mad in their theories of reform (postulating ideas like instating an “international army”), but a much more modest proposal seems obvious, at least to me. Let’s forget veto power — it has left international law completely impotent. I think the Security Council would still be slow to action in the case of a majority vote, but not completely abstinent in all international crises, as it is now.
When the Security Council meets this week, lots of strong words will be thrown out by the Western members: France, the U.S. and the U.K. They will threaten sanctions against Russian officials, economic freezes and the like. But I have a horrible feeling that the strong actions will come from the East: the promise to veto any Western encroachment, the promise to remain mobilized in Crimea and the promise to keep eyes on the Ukraine and beyond.
Ben Moss thinks they could have come up with a better title than “Cold War II” … Real original.