Letter From America: Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: September 28, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

The United Nations this week has its annual ‘General Debate’ where world leaders congregate to exchange platitudes across the floor and meet each other on the sidelines. Diplomacy is like a sausage; you really don’t want to know what goes into it. But in many ways the politics of the UN is more interesting than it used to be.

For decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US effectively decided what was going to happen in the UN. It was not in the rules, but that was the way it was in the world and the countries that did not like it could protest, but could not stop it.

Power has shifted in the world, which has become multipolar and thus, to some extent, unstable. China, whose foreign policy used to be dominated by Taiwan and Tibet, has begun to wear its great power status more comfortably and play a more active role.

Putin’s Russia has also become much more assertive and less accommodating to Washington’s wishes, both in response to the changes in their relative powers in the world and also as a resentful rejoinder to the years of humiliation at the hands of inept American policy makers who visibly acted on the assumption that the USA had defeated the Soviets in the Cold War.

Without exonerating Putin for his cynical national communism without the collectives, that American attitude and ineptitude has a lot of responsibility for the uncooperative attitude. But to remind us that Britain and France still have positions in the world quite independently of their permanent security council seats, it is mainly their ineptitude in Libya, where Moscow had refrained from vetoing intervention, that reinforces current Russian attitudes in Syria.

The inquiries into Iraq and Libya focus attention on Britain’s role in the world – which is still an important one, whether or not one has imperialist pretensions. As Robin Cook allowed, foreign policy should have an ethical dimension. The United Nations Charter is not some sacred tex. Apart from its high-falutin’ prologue, it was a pragmatic working document between the five wartime allies whose main purpose was to authorize collective action against any uppity new country on the block that showed signs of wanting to rock the boat.

The point of needing a resolution from the Security Council to authorize military action was to stop any one of them from acting unilaterally, and the point of the veto was to reassure them that the others could not use the procedures to gang up on one of them. While we admonish Tony Blair, correctly, for ignoring the UN Charter over Iraq, the most devastating blot on his record is not that, even though it is piously invoked, but that he failed the test of history. To paraphrase the French diplomat, it was worse than a crime – it was complete and utter cockup and, what is more, in that cockpit of world tensions, the Middle East. Never has an administration displayed such spectacularly self-righteous incompetence as that of George W. Bush in Iraq, aided by Britain under Tony Blair, who allowed it to happen.

In contrast, in Libya, the intervention had the support of the UN Security Council, and it could be argued that if anything there was insufficient intervention. There is more to humanitarian intervention than dropping bombs, which experience shows is possibly the worst and most counterproductive form of intervention. Weak and inexperienced institutions were left swinging.

There is, of course, an expedient piety about invoking the UN. The first Iraq war was definitely authorized, indeed called for by the UN Security Council – even though the form it took and the conduct of it left much to be desired. Sadly, the devastating decade of punitive sanctions that followed were also mandated by the Security Council – and supported by Britain.

In contrast, Tony Blair was being ethical but illegal in calling for a ground invasion of Kosovo to respond to Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. Russian diplomats somewhat disin­genuously protest that they never vetoed action, but they almost certainly would have done, while they lost every vote to condemn the NATO action. Being slavish about adhering to unjust rules is not necessarily ethical – as any blockade runner taking supplies to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War might testify.

Even though I personally hope that the current Labour leadership is on its way to forming a government, there is room for some concern that foreign policy positions forged as vociferous back bench watchdogs and grassroots protests might not take into account all the many ethical dimensions that a nation of Britain’s historical responsibilities needs to factor into dealings with a multipolar world. The US is indeed often wrong. But that does not mean that sundry Latin caudillos should be our exemplars.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent