Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.