Archive for January, 2012

January 31, 2012

UNSC and Syria: Getting warmer…

In a three hour open session, the United Nations Security Council heard the strongest push yet for the passage of a resolution on Syria. Though lacking in the drama that many predicted in the “Super Bowl” of the Security Council, the meeting did make somewhat clearer the demands that would have to be met before a vote on the draft resolution tabled by Morocco.

Negotiations are ongoing surrounding a few key preambulatory clauses and one operative, as seen in red here. Some were to be expected, such as the clause expressing concern at the flow of weapons into Syria. But the harshest pushback from Russia has been on operative clause seven, the part of the text mirroring the League’s roadmap for political transition in Syria.

Ostensibly, this meeting’s purpose was the hear briefings from the Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim, in his role as the chair of the League of Arab States’ committee on Syria, on the recently postponed Observer Mission and to push for the Security Council to take up the text of its January 22 resolution in full. In actuality, the meeting was a free-for-all dogpile on Russia to yield its intransigence.

The diplomatic big guns were in the room, with the Foreign Ministers of Portugal, Germany, and Morocco present. And then in a class above that, the Really Big Guns: French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alaine Juppe, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs William Hague, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In a pattern that seems familiar to those who watched the Libyan debate, there’s a clear “good cop/bad cop” dynamic by the West at play.  Hague and Juppe played their roles perfectly, with Juppe throwing the word “scandalous” around liberally as they wailed on Syria. Despite the pressure employed by the two, Hague emphasized that the draft in question was under Chapter VI, not Chapter VII of the Charter.

Clinton’s good cop was also pitch perfect, as she managed to clearly delineate the difference between a “political handover” and “regime change”, no easy feat. The US has gotten quite good at portraying itself as the level-headed one in the room, particularly whenever Rice or Clinton are speaking.

I could go on at length about just how very, very bad Syrian Permanent Representative Bashar Ja’afari was in this debate. So I will. He was clearly outmatched, starting off by quoting Syrian poetry, leading me to wonder if the mild fever I have had just crested. Ja’afari leaned heavily on his government’s own particular spin on the situation affecting Syria. For example, in quoting the Arab League monitor’s report, he correctly pointed out that Paragraph 71 states that there is an armed opposition that wasn’t taken into account by the Arab League in its original resolution. But in the very next sentence, the report stresses that the armed opposition sprung up because of the regime’s violence.

The man everyone was watching, however, wasn’t the Representative from Damascus. Instead, all eyes were on Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Churkin was there in place of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was in Australia instead of New York as was rumored today.

Despite utilizing the full range of his usual rhetoric, Churkin made no explicit veto threats during the meeting itself. Instead Russia did a much, much better job of defending the actions of the Assad regime than Ja’afari did, pressing for a need for both parties to meet in Moscow to come to a political solution themselves. In the press stakeout after the meeting, Churkin stated that the Arab League is in the driver’s seat on Syria. He extended the metaphor, saying “sometimes when in the driver’s seat, as the Arab League is, you step too hard on the accelerator, and wind up in a ditch”.

Nothing new was truly learned during the speeches, but it does seem that Russia and China are running low on excuses for not supporting the draft tabled by Morocco. Neither cited any real opposition to the actual content of the resolution, nor did they really push back on the statements of the Secretary-General of the Arab League and the Qatari Prime Minister. Being customarily opaque, China, in its speech, said that it “supports” Russia’s draft as tabled several weeks ago, while it merely “noted” the Moroccan text.

In all, the most likely result of this diplomatic blitz is slowly moving away from a Russian veto. That is, provided Moscow can be persuaded that the major concerns with the draft that it’s citing? Don’t actually exist in the text. Nowhere in the text exists explicit economic sanctions nor military intervention authorizations, despite the ample protests by Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

Those four, along with South Africa, make up the five states likely to oppose or abstain on the vote on this resolution. The most substantive of their concerns center in on the idea that actions and recommendations that are permissible at the level of the Arab League may not be the role of the Security Council. This argument is specious at best, as there is, in fact, much more a chance of international spillover from an escalation in Syria than there ever was in Libya clearly marking it as a situation at risk of disturbing international peace and security. In any case, if the draft actually manages to pass through with operative clause 7 intact, I’ll be extremely impressed. But it will be setting for the stage for another, even more difficult, battle in just fifteen days.

January 30, 2012

UNSC approval is vital to the use of force – True or False?

On Talk of the Nation today, Anne-Marie Slaughter made the case that should Russia not allow the United Nations Security Council move forward on Syria, the world can act without them. More specifically, she laid out a further explanation of her Atlantic piece on Syrian intervention:

Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council — Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how necessary — as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution.

During the NPR interview, according to Twitter, Slaughter clarified that a “supermajority” of states on the Council must vote in favor of intervention for the international community to act without a resolution in their favor due to the veto of a permanent member. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to listen to the interview yet, so I’m unsure about whether she was speaking in reference to the draft resolution currently on the table, as introduced by Morocco, or if she means a hypothetical resolution under Chapter VII.

No matter the context, I had trouble with this when she first published the article, and I’m having even more issues with it now. The backbone of Professor Slaughter’s argument, and that of other interventionists, is that action in Syria is required to support the developing norms of the international community, namely the Responsibility to Protect. The problem with this is that in promoting the advancement of this norm, it would seem that going around codified international law would be required to do so. I am most certainly not an international law expert, but it would seem to me that codified laws take precedence over norms, particularly when a great deal of weight has traditionally applied to the approval of the United Nations Security Council to take action.

Great Power politics are undeniably a mess, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I’ve argued previously that I don’t believe that acting without the Security Council in practice is an ideal solution. Dodging the Council, though, would also prove to be a failure in principle as well. To actively say that a veto in the Security Council should be ignored seems to weaken the institution as a whole. Many of the same people advocating intervention in Syria screamed bloody murder over the Bush Administration launching strikes into Iraq without an authorizing resolution of the Security Council, due to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. I should know, I was one of them. But the Bush White House at least had the slim thread of “upholding previous UNSC resolutions” as part of their justification. While nobody bought it, at least the effort was made, and it is true that several UNSC resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein comply with international demands were passed in the past. Likewise, several chances were given to Milosevic’s Former Republic of Yugoslavia to adhere to the wishes of the Council and cease violence against its civilians; a true exhaustion of options building up to force existed. No such history exists against Syria in the Security Council.

It’s my opinion that if you’re going to say that the rules are bad and unfair, you should at least be consistent with it. The UN Security Council can’t be the end decision point in the use of force only in times where you agree with all 15 members’ views. Come out for a change of the rules governing the body wholesale, instead of claiming they can be circumvented in certain situations. There may well be a moral argument for intervening in Syria, but the idea that it’s any more legal to defy the Council in one situation or another doesn’t hold water. Either the UNSC is the final arbiter of international peace and security or it isn’t. And if it is, then the principles on which it was founded, as anachronistic as they may be in the 21st century are still worthy of consideration.

The fact remains that the veto is, as was devised by the Soviets as a condition for joining the UN in the first place, a tool to protect national interests. Well, at present, it is in Russia’s national interest to not have the West intervene in Syria. If, heaven forbid, the United States were to no longer be the sole superpower, we would certainly expect that in the case of a veto that action not be taken against our interests, a principle that was upheld at the height of the Cold War. I do approve of the idea of getting the Syrian National Council to guarantee Russia access to their current naval base in Syria even after Assad falls; it’s one of the few things keeping them from dropping Assad like a hot potato; Unfortunately, Vitaly Churkin’s threats to no longer protect Assad with the veto seems to have gone unheeded by Damascus, leaving Russia in a position where it may well do what it has hinted at in recent press statements.

I’m not entirely sure if there are even enough “aye” votes for the current draft at present in any case, let alone one authorizing force. The whip count may change after Tuesday’s briefing by the Arab League and the presence of several attendees at the ministerial level. But you can count on at least four abstentions, if not flat-out “no” votes. Is this ten the supermajority that Slaughter references? In any case, a “supermajority” of UNSC member states won’t be enough to override, particularly if the resolution tabled is the one that is up for discussion. The political factors on the table, including a peaceful transition to a unity government, can’t be enacted by force with any semblance of credibility in the face of a veto. Or can you only go around the Security Council when force is on the table? It may be a moot point, as with the lack of sanctions and military factors involved, there’s still a slim chance that Russia abstains, bringing China along with it. But in the event of a veto, the international community needs to decide whether the UNSC is the final arbiter on the use of force as it has long held or an obstacle to be overcome.

January 26, 2012

Syria is not, and will not be, the new Kosovo

David Bosco has a new piece up on the Multilateralist blog, looking at the European Union’s strategy for handling Syria. The EU has chosen to work entirely within the framework of the United Nations so far, including the Security Council, where Russia has vetoed and promised to do so again. Rather than being deterred by this set-back, the EU has rallied the other components of the UN, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, to pass condemnations by large margins. In noting this, Bosco finds it odd that talk of intervention without Council approval has not been seriously discussed by diplomats:

One interesting feature of the diplomacy surrounding both Libya and Syria is how little talk there has been of outsiders using force without Security Council approval (although this might have been a live topic if Russia and China had not acquiesced to intervention in Libya). The Kosovo precedent–humanitarian intervention without a Council mandate–has not resurfaced. The scant discussion of this option may signal a deepening of the understanding that states cannot initiate force–at least not for elective, “community” purposes such as humanitarian intervention–without the Council’s blessing.

I disagree with his view that the lack of discussion in citing the “Kosovo precedent” is a new understanding of the Council’s role in humanitarian uses of force. Rather, it’s worth noting that the Kosovo intervention was in many ways like Libya- unique. If a Kosovo precedent exists, it is one in which a set of four circumstances have to be met before force will be used without UNSC approval. The first, that of a humanitarian crisis with potential cross-border spillover, has been met. The second, the stalemate of the Security Council in handling the matter, has been as well. 

The third dynamic that was present in Kosovo, and is lacking in Syria to a certain degree, is a clear and systematic killing of one side by the other with genocidal repercussions. The Syrian government’s crackdown is fierce and brutal, but has yet to be one of imminent mass slaughter as we saw in Libya with Benghazi and in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The fourth dynamic, and the most important for our comparison, is that there must be no Great Power interests at stake preventing intervention. Here is where Syria and Kosovo diverge the most. The Kosovo intervention was disapproved of by Russia due to cultural ties with Serbia and the use of the NATO alliance to carry it out. But no material links were truly in place between the two states. In Syria, however, there are economic and strategic ties with Russia at stake, in the form of arms sales to Damascus and the southernmost Russian naval base remaining. Russia will not abide by an intervention in Syria without Council approval and the other Great Powers don’t want to push Russia into retaliatory actions in other relations they have with Moscow.

I will note that the Free Syrian Army may have learned more from the Kosovo Liberation Army than we’re comfortable with. But they’ve learned the wrong lesson. In provoking the FRY into using overwhelming force against the Kosovars, the KLA prompted Western intervention. But in the fog of war surrounding Syria these days, it’s impossible to get a clear read on who is doing the killing in all instances, not when all of the dead have the same background. Should another situation arise in which all four dynamics are present, I do believe that we will see action taken without UNSC approval due to a Russian or Chinese veto. Syria, unfortunately, is not that case.

EDIT: Much to my surprise, Bosco actually responded to me as an edit on his original blog post. I think it’s only fair that I do the same. In particular, he was not convinced by my third and fourth dynamics marking the difference between Syria and Kosovo.

I don’t find these distinctions compelling. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that more have been killed in Syria than was the case in Kosovo at the time of international intervention. Pace Brown, pre-intervention Kosovo was not a situation of mass slaughter; instead, there had been a steady accretion of violence and displacement (in fact, the most intense campaign of forced displacement occurred after NATO intervention).

As to Russian opposition, is Brown suggesting that Russia would use force to oppose intervention in Syria? It appears to me that Russian objections are about the same order of intensity as they were in Kosovo. At one point in the run-up to the Kosovo intervention Boris Yeltsin reportedly called up Bill Clinton and screamed at him about the dangers of pushing Russia too far. And it’s worth remembing that during the Kosovo intervention, Russia actually did deploy its forces to seize Pristina’s airport before NATO forces could get there, leading to a tense standoff.

As to the first point, I will grant him that the numbers may be in Syria’s favor when it comes to the comparison. And while I thought I was up on my Kosovo history, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that the most systematic of the violence against ethnic Albanians was after NATO intervention, nor did I know about the siezing of Pristina’s airport. I’m still not sure, though, that the violence in Syria reaches the potential for razing of cities we saw in Libya or the focused killing of an ethnic group that we saw in Kosovo. It’s at an awkward point where nobody is entirely sure yet which way the ball will drop: towards a ratcheted up campaign against all civilians by the government, a more clearly defined and delineated civil war, or an unknown third option. Without knowing which way things are tilting, it’s hard to put together a response involving intervention that is as clear as Libya (“protect civilians” and give cover to rebels) or Kosovo (“protect civilians” and end violence against an ethnic group).

As for the second point, I’m not suggesting that Russia will actually use force. Even if they did, the naval forces they’ve previously sent to Syria as a warning would be overcome by the US Fifth Fleet. I am, however, saying that Russia will do everything it can to make the West’s lives miserable in other capacities. Vetoing previously agreed upon resolutions, revoking NATO’s ability to transport materials to Afghanistan and encouraging other CIS states to do the same, becoming a burr in the WTO now that they’re members,  just generally being even more obstructionist than usual. Libya pushed Russia’s relations with the West lower, that’s for certain, but I don’t believe they’ve hit rock bottom. I don’t know what that would look like, but I believe that intervening in Syria without Council approval would give us a good idea.

January 25, 2012

SPACE!: Newt, International Law, and the Extraterrestrial Commons

For those of you without Twitter streams fueled purely by snark, it may have slipped your notice that Newt Gingrich is, and always has been, a giant nerd, particularly when it comes to the territory beyond our atmosphere. Well, today, campaigning in Florida, Newt has managed to out-do himself:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for the creation of a permanent lunar colony that could become the nation’s 51st state and a re-dedication to sending a man to Mars during a sprawling campaign speech Wednesday in Florida.

“I am sick of being told we have to be timid and I’m sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old,” Gingrich told a cheering crowd.

Gingrich said that his vision was on par with President Lincoln’s call for a transcontinental railroad, the Wright brothers’ push for manned flight, and President Kennedy’s vision to send a man to the moon. Later, he described the rally as “the second great launch of the adventure John F. Kennedy started.”

And in what Gingrich himself described as “the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” the former House Speaker called for a “Northwest ordinance for space.”

“By the end of my second term, we will have a permanent colony on the moon and it will be American,” Gingrich said.

From some politicians, this would be called “pandering”. For Newt, this is known as “Wednesday”.

Putting aside the untold scientific and logistical problems surrounding Newt’s goals, for all his excitement over development of space, I somehow doubt that he has very much of an idea of what the current law and issues surrounding the use of space consist of. Or if he did, that he wouldn’t like them very much. So I am hereby appointing myself the Gingrich 2012 campaign’s Chief Stellar Law Advisor. You’re welcome, Mr. Speaker.

So where to begin? For starters, let’s make clear that we can’t lay claim to the entirety of the Moon. While the temptation to revert to colonial rules of “We have a flag there, it’s totally ours” is strong, it doesn’t quite work that way. Why you ask? Because of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, better known as The Outer Space Treaty.

“A treaty,” you say, “surely we can’t be have signed and ratified such folly”. Well, we were actually one of the main authors of the text. Bear in mind, when this was drafted, the United States and Soviet Union were still mortal enemies and both possessed space-faring capabilities. It was in our best interest to declare that nobody get the entirety of the Moon, rather than fighting over it. What’s more, the Outer Space Treaty gave us the comfort of knowing that the Russians weren’t going to pull a Ripley on us and attempt to nuke us from orbit.

“Well, the Soviets aren’t a threat anymore, what’s to stop us from just taking the Moon?” That question would be fundamentally flawed in nature. First, there’s no viable weapons systems in existence to actual initiate combat in space. What taking the moon would involve includes arming whatever vehicles we design to replace the space shuttle to take us into orbit, which also doesn’t exist, with conventional missiles.

This leads us to a point that the Bush Administration recognized and fought against the Space Preservation Treaty to ensure: there is no law preventing weaponization of space with conventional missiles. The Obama Administration has backed away from this position, but you can bet that Newt would be heavily in favor of returning to it.

As Chief Stellar Law Advisor, I’d have to weigh in strongly against such a move. If the sea is a global commons, space is most certainly an extraterrestrial commons. There are currently a total of ten countries with the capacity to place artificial satellites into orbit. There are several more who can create satellites, but lack the mechanism to actually place them.

These satellites affect our daily lives in an ever-growing number of ways and to endanger the right of all states to launch items into space, free from the threat of molestation, is vital to our future. Only through international cooperation and dialogue through mechanisms like the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), the UN’s body to discuss matters of space, can we hope to maintain the freedom of all states to launch satellites. As a sidebar, I would strongly press Mr. Gingrich to invest more heavily in the UN body with the best acronym in history: UN-SPIDER.

I’m sure there are several out there, including Newt himself, that will argue that the only way we ensure that space remain open is through the same way we do the seas, through being able to project force into the sphere. To that, I counter that the terrestrial methods that we use to influence other states on security matters will remain viable in any future that involves space. Much as the introduction of drones into the theatre does not affect warfare at its core, so too introduction of the space and cyber domains as potentially contested spheres will not fundamentally change the way that states interact with each other. And just as arms control can be achieved landside, so must it be striven for in space.

It’s with the openness of space in mind that the United States has recently announced that it  will be working with the European Union in drafting an International Code of Conduct for Space. As more states gain the ability to launch first satellites, then humans, into space, the already cluttered orbit above the Earth will become even more so. A Gingrich Administration would be doing the United States a disservice if it were to withdraw from these talks, as it almost inevitably would, as it is in our interest to ensure that states abide by a common set of rules of keeping the upper atmosphere clear of debris. Going it alone won’t cut it when it comes to space, especially if we’re to ever make it to the Moon and beyond.

So to sum up, even if Newt’s dreams of moon mining (and whaling) were possible, he’d find that the body of law surrounding his lunar activities more extensive than expected. What’s more, he’d discover that the idea of the United States maintaining exclusive control of Luna and other heavenly bodies would be becoming more and more laughable. It’s almost as ridiculous as the idea that we’re going to have a permanent moon base in just nine years. But still not as laughable as a Gingrich Administration.

January 18, 2012

Uniting for Syria? Not in the General Assembly

The tenth anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has prompted several reflections, including the The Stanley Foundation’s R2P: The Next Decade Conference in New York City this week, examining the future of the concept. In doing so, it’s impossible to not have all eyes turn towards Syria, wondering what, if anything, is to be done to protect the civilian population from the Bashar al-Assad government’s rampage.

An idea that I saw tossed around on Twitter as I followed the debate was one that I hadn’t considered in-depth: using the Uniting for Peace concept, based

Uniting for Peace for Syria in the UNGA?

on UN General Assembly resolution 337 (A), to circumvent the deadlocked Security Council. I can see why the idea would have appeal; Russia introduced the third version of its draft resolution on Syria to the Council this week, a version that has rejected all of the suggestions by the Western powers as having “emasculated” the text.

Dodging the veto of Russia and China on a strong resolution on Syria in the General Assembly would be a dream come true for activists impassioned about Syria. And the General Assembly has previously come out against the regime, passing a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights abuses and compelling it to adhere to the Arab League’s provisions by a substantial margin. So why not bring up a new resolution, under the auspices of R2P and Uniting for Peace, to push for tough measures on Damascus?

Well, there are several reasons. The first of which is that there’s precisely no chance that the P-3 of note in the above tweet, the United States, United Kingdom, and France, would support such a move. All three have come out against the Assad government’s violence and all three have said that he needs to step down from ruling Syria. However, all three value their power in the United Nations Security Council far more. The circumvention of the veto-power is a touchy subject for these three states.

This is the very reason why you don’t see the Uniting for Peace option used as much as it was when first introduced. During the early 1950s, the vast majority of  the General Assembly was composed of states from Latin America and Europe, states that were close allies of the United States. This was only fitting as the UN started out as a war-time alliance. As decolonization swept the globe, however, and more new states from Africa and Asia joined the Assembly, the US lost its strong majority, and with it its ability to easily pass any action it wanted through without a struggle.

Further, the concept is on shaky legal ground to begin with. The UN Charter does provide some small stake in the maintenance of international peace and security to the General Assembly, but the organ charged primarily with that function is the Security Council. The Assembly’s powers under Chapter IV are also phrased in such a way that compliance by member-states is not mandatory. Put another way, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding recommendations, unlike Council resolutions which carry the full weight of international law. To claim that any action taken under Uniting for Peace would be binding to states, including Syria, is counter to facts.

What’s more, any resolution tabled dealing with Syria as a breach of the Responsibility to Protect would necessarily be one dealing with international peace and security. Under Article 18 of the Charter, such matters are deemed an “Important Question” and require a two-thirds vote to pass. Depending on the severity of the provisions tabled, it is unlikely that two-thirds of the GA will be willing to vote for measures that would actually affect the situation on the ground in Syria. The two-thirds threshold would be particularly difficult to meet as the P-3 will surely be quietly working behind the scenes to keep a vote from coming to the floor to begin with.

Even if the Important Question provision is overcome, the fact remains that the resolution would still be entirely based on recommendations. As such, there would be no legally credible enforcement mechanism in place to compel those states that voted against the measures to enact them. In the event that even such moderate measures as an exact duplication of the embargoes placed on Damascus by the League of Arab States, there would be nothing stopping trade with Syria by states who want to. And as an arms embargo, of the type that would actually affect the Syrian governments ability to kill civilians, would be unenforceable, Russia can continue selling its wares unabated. No country’s navy is going to want to board a Russian ship in what may be an illegal embargo.

The idea was also breached that rather than shooting for strong measures, at the very least an Emergency Session of the General Assembly can be called under Uniting for Peace, to get the crisis in Syria under more urgent discussion. This would be a strong show of will by the international community, it could be argued, to show that Syria’s misdeeds are not going on unnoticed. The only problem is that without firm action to accompany such a session, it would be an empty victory. It would in fact be counter to the goals of the callers, as it would first show that the international community has no real plan of action towards Syria, which could prompt a surge in violence. An Emergency Session would, instead of showing resolve, cast the United Nations as weak and inept, surely the last thing the organization needs.

In situations like the one in Syria, it’s easy to ask “What can be done? Why is nothing being done?”, especially in the context of R2P. The United Nations in particular is being targeted as not moving swiftly enough to contain the crisis, but it’s easy to forget that the UN is, and always has been, a collection of member states. The General Assembly has acted strongly to condemn Syria, but it will not be the forum that will provide the end to violence there.

January 17, 2012

Russia considering time-honored “Cut and Run” tactic from UN’s South Sudan mission

News came across the wire today that Russia is considering withdrawing their 120 peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS), charged with stabilizing the security of the new country. While the number may not seem like a lot, the Russians would also take home their four utility helicopters, which are used for transport from the UNMISS base to points across the country. Russia formerly operated eight helicopters in the state, having already pulled half back in December after incidents of South Sudanese security forces attacking the choppers. From Reuters:

Russia’s U.N. mission said in a statement to Reuters that Moscow was “alarmed” by attacks on utility helicopters operated by the Russian military for UNMISS.

“Recently the situation in providing security to the Russian helicopter crews has been deteriorating,” the mission said.

But a mission spokesman made clear that a final decision on whether or not to pull out of UNMISS had not been made. “Administrative matters pertaining to a new letter of assist (contract with the U.N.) are being discussed by the parties,” the spokesman said.

To cover for the shortage of helicopters in South Sudan, [the UN] said UNMISS would be temporarily using helicopters from the U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo and a separate Ethiopian stabilization force, called UNISFA, currently in the disputed Abyei region bordering north and South Sudan.

The lack of helicopters has been blamed for the slow United Nations response to the violence that took place earlier this month in area surrounding Pibor. Inner City Press reports that while it is true that Russian helicopters refused to take-off at the request of the mission, that the copters themselves weren’t technically at the call of UNMISS. Rather, they were provided to the now defunct UNMIS, with the agreement between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Russian government having expired on December 1st. This is clearly the fault of the United Nations Secretariat, but it shouldn’t be an impetus for Russian withdrawal, with the Russians arguing that their peacekeepers are being kept safe.

I sincerely hope that the Russians don’t withdraw from the Mission. Because if they do? They’ll be showing adherence to a time-honored tradition when it comes to United Nations peacekeeping missions: weakness. ‘This mission isn’t precisely what I intended, ergo I must bail’. For a state that prides itself on bucking Western-norms, Russia seems to be lining right up with the rest of the developed world when it comes to providing forces to these missions. Risks are acceptable, so long as its only forces from Uganda or Bangladesh accepting them, never mind that the developed states are the only ones with the technology that can further improve the likelihood of success for the mandates we approved.

I may be called hypocritical, in light of the United States’ continued refusal to commit forces under the banner of the United Nations, instead preferring to call the shots while under the veneer of UN approval. Well, I would say the exact same thing if the was the US who was withdrawing, all other factors being the same. Comparisons to the US withdrawal in Somalia would be unfair, however; in that instance, the unclear mission and overreach by the United States in terms of mandate led to the situation in Mogadishu that prompted withdrawal. The case for Russia to pull the same move isn’t equivalent, as there have been precisely zero casualties. Even the Belgians withdrawal from Rwanda, a state where a genocide was actively occurring, took place after actual deaths of soldiers; the situation here is a product of bureaucratic wrangling and lack of will.

Don’t for a second think that I’m discounting the difficulty inherent in the job of peacekeepers themselves, soldiers from other lands, often times with confused instructions and loyalties. I can’t imagine being deployed to UN operations, knowing that you are potentially volunteering your life in a part of the world where you have no interest in being. But that’s part of the point. The blue helmets know what they are signing up for. Or at least their government does. And it is the government that chooses to withdraw their contributions. It seems to me that it’s almost worse for a member-state to contribute forces, then feign shock when there are actual guns being fired in these locales and a security apparatus in need of reform. It’s right there in the mandate that UNMISS forces are expected to “deter violence including through proactive deployment and patrols in areas at high risk of conflict, within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment, protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular when the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is not providing such security”.  

The United Nations’ forces in the field can’t be taken seriously as a force for stabilization, not when it’s known to everyone with a semi-automatic that a few rounds fired or an incorrectly filed piece of paperwork can cause the withdrawal of key members. And it is the lack of serious, well-trained troops being available at the UN’s call that leads to issues of inefficiency in the ranks and having to sacrifice hastening missions into their intended states or thorough training. It’s a miracle at times when states are actually willing to contribute these forces and a heartbreak when they’re called home prematurely. South Sudan needs all the help it can get if it’s to survive as a newly independent state. Moscow claims that it has not made a final decision on whether to end its participation in UNMISS. I can only hope that I’ll be surprised by their choice.

January 16, 2012

Be Like Water

At the close of last night’s post, I indicated that I believed that China and the United States’ points of view would shape the agenda of the Security Council in coming years. The truth of this goes beyond the halls of UN Headquarters, which is enough of a truism that I suppose it was another reason I have not written extensively about Sino-American relations.

Moving forward, however, that relationship does deserve a closer look, particularly the ways in which the two will interact directly in coming years. Despite American fears, the People’s Republic will continue to mature and grow into its role, and considerations need to be made as far as what kind of relationship Washington wants with Beijing. Further, in pursuing its own policy goals, the US needs to learn to be like water, to take a page from the Tao: fluid in the path it takes but always, inexorably, flowing towards the same path.

The direct relationship between the US and China will most certainly show times of strain and pressure on both sides as the years pass, and that is to be expected considering the maturation of China as a power-player. China is growing weary of being expected to be left on the short-end of negotiations at all times.  At the same time, the United States has forgotten how to yield on issues without looking, and feeling, weakened by the experience. “Saving face” is an essential concept in China, allowing even the losers in an experience to come away with a salvaged sense of pride. The United States’ policymakers and negotiators would do well to keep this in mind in the future.

For example, in the situation brewing with Iran, the United States has pushed forward on stronger sanctions, including a new unilateral set that would also punish financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank. China has so far resisted US calls to join in the sanctions, but an editorial in the Global Times’ English edition goes further:

China should not bend to US pressure. It needs to come up with deliberate countermeasures, and show deterrence to an arrogant US. The unilateral sanctions were levied under its own amended Iran Sanctions Act, rather than any UN Security Council resolution.

Iran’s oil resources and geopolitical value are crucial to China. Chinese companies have the freedom to engage in legal business with Iran’s energy sector. It is worth taking on some troubles and even paying a certain price to safeguard this principle.

China should be confident. The US, facing a tough economy and the coming presidential election, cannot afford a trade war with China. It is not set on having a showdown with China just to impose sanctions on Iran. China has adopted anti-sanction measures against the US before, and this time China should demonstrate the same toughness.

Rather than pushing unnecessarily on Beijing to alter its stance, the US would do better to encourage China to continue its trade with Tehran. The reasoning behind this is simple. China has been putting its own form of pressure on Iran in the form of extracting concessions in price on Iranian oil; as one of a dwindling number of buyers, Iran can’t afford to stand strong against these price declines, in turn further weakening its economy, a Pyrrhic victory. In allowing China an exception to the sanctions on states dealing with Iran, China and the US both benefit. Rather than playing out a zero-sum game, both parties need to find areas of commonality so that the actual disagreements with wide-reaching impact aren’t marred by the small stuff.

Seeking accord is becoming more necessary as China’s influence continues to rise on the course to superpower status. The superpower competition on the horizon will be far different from that of the Cold War. Rather than a battle for supremacy with existential implications on the line, this jockeying for power will be an extension of the economic battles that face the two. China wants greater access to natural resources and new markets for its exports, particularly once it moves beyond its current low-tech production and comes into its own in the high-tech sphere where the US has traditionally dominated.

Indeed, even in the event that China comes out the dominant power later this century, it isn’t clear that Beijing will undertake the sort of revisionist sweep that the Soviet Union surely would have if it had come out on top in the Cold War and the United States certainly has.

America, at least in theory, prefers that other countries share its values and act like Americans. China can only fear a world where everybody acts like the Chinese. So, in a future dominated by China, the Chinese will not set the rules; rather, they will seek to extract the greatest possible benefit from the rules that already exist.

Rather than fear of a cultural domination or an usurping of American ‘ideals’, the primary reason for American analysts fear over China’s rise is the idea that a more powerful China can and will challenge the United States’ global projection of military power, which in turn threatens US economic interests in the areas described earlier. The US’ power is a combination of its money and missiles, and a threat to either of them sends shivers through the spine of Washington. What’s more, threats from China not only include nuclear weapons in the equation, as with the Soviet Union, but also newer weaponry and spheres of combat, such as offensive cyber-capabilities and anti-satellite technology. Both sides surely have these capacities, though neither speaks of them publicly.

During the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction promised that the only way to prevent the launch of nuclear attack was the guarantee that doing so would result in a total loss by both sides. Only through this deterrence were the US and the USSR able to avoid nuclear holocaust.  The National Interest has published one of the most intriguing paths forward for the US and China that I’ve seen, a moderation of this doctrine that expands the idea into the domains of cyber- and space-based combat:

Confidence that such pledges would be honored, even in crisis, ultimately rests on the bedrock of mutual deterrence. Knowing that they cannot defend against retaliation (due to offense dominance), neither the United States nor China should be the first to employ nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. The two should supplement strategic no-first-use understandings with confidence-building measures such as missile-launch notification, greater transparency about nuclear arsenals, and consultation and cooperation on cyber threats from other states and nonstate actors.

The devil lies in the details and definition of any proposed mutual strategic restraint. Would nonphysical interference with satellites be forbidden? Yes. Would cyber crime and cyber espionage be covered? No, only destructive attacks on critical networks. Would Chinese and U.S. armed forces be precluded from interfering with military computer networks during armed conflict? No, though tactical cyber war must be tightly controlled by political leaders to avoid escalation. Would allies, e.g., Japan and South Korea, be covered by the pledge not to initiate strategic attacks? Absolutely.

The sort of high-level talks that would lead to the acceptance of such an agreement, talks based around strategic imperatives rather than singular issues, need to become more frequent in the coming months and years. Currently, there’s no guarantee that China would sign on board to such a proposal, nor that the United States would push forward with it. But the fact is, we can’t continue to treat China as the lesser partner in this ‘Group of Two’.

My greatest fear in mitigating tensions between the two is that a new, harsher China policy will be installed next January. It would be the absolute worst time for the US to push hard on the PRC, as new leadership will be reaffirming its power after a recent handover in the Politburo. In order to prevent conflict in the coming decades, the United States, no matter who’s in the White House, is going to need to learn to be flexible enough in its China policy to allow for greater give in its management of China’s rise, preventing the rigidity that would provoke a crumbling of ties, running counter to the US’ long-term gain.

January 15, 2012

Off-Limits: Asia’s future on the UNSC’s agenda

A little over a year and a half ago, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Asian Studies. The latter half of that combination most likely wouldn’t be all that apparent, if you were to only read this blog. Going through my last few months of posts, and particularly looking at my handy word cloud of tags at the bottom of the page, I realized the other night that despite my major, I rarely find myself writing on issues dealing with the Asian continent. Not counting Southeast Asia, i.e. Pakistan, and matters in Western Asia/the Middle East, that is.

This is concerning to me for several reasons; I decided to major in Asian studies at MSU because I knew that’s where the future of International Relations would be grounded. With this in mind, I decided a few nights ago to undertake a “self-pivot” and started loading up on books and Twitter streams dealing with Asia, and China in specific. But that doesn’t really explain the why of my lack of writing about Asian affairs. After pondering a little further, it hit me. My overarching theme in writing has dealt with issues that have been highlighted on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council, it turns out, doesn’t interact strongly with Asia, instead focusing the majority of its attention on the Middle East and Africa.

In the last year, the Security Council, excepting myriad resolutions on Afghanistan, passed but two resolutions focused on situations in Asia. The first was a further continuation of the sanctions regime on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and an extension of the mandate of the Panel of Experts appointed to oversee their implementation. The sole other was an extension of the mandate of one of only three missions currently authorized in Asia, which oversees the stability of East Timor. This was reflected in the Presidential Statements put forward by the Council as well; it seems nothing happening near the Pacific warranted comment by the members of the Council.

Even the simmering tensions between Thailand and Cambodia managed to remain off the radar of the Security Council. Skirmishes between the two over an area of disputed territory containing an ancient temple left 18 dead in April. A judgment by the International Court of Justice in July demanded that both sides withdraw their troops from the disputed area, a demand that was promptly ignored. This alone could, and should, have placed this topic on the Council’s docket. Instead, the two countries were thankfully able to avoid the shooting war that was very much in the realm of possibility, bilaterally agreeing to withdraw their troops in December.

Taking proactive steps in the case of Thailand-Cambodia could have been a boost to the credibility of the Security Council, returning it to its early roots of playing direct mediator in arising conflicts globally. Situations with less clear-cut implications for international peace and security have brought to bear the will of the UNSC, so why not this one? Why, despite the broad mandate of the Security Council under Chapter VI of the Charter, are so few topics involving Asiatic countries placed on the agenda of the Council?

The answer lies in the geopolitics that permeate every instance of conflict that takes place in that corner of the world. As of now, there is no true hegemonic power on the Asian continent, despite fears that China wants to claim the title for itself. Several ascendant powers in the region are constantly jockeying for position over the smaller states in the region. China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, all want to control their own destinies in the coming decades, and each has reasons to keep matters of their security in their own home court. Any member state has the ability to bring matters they feel affect international peace and security before the Council; many Asian states choose not to, preferring regional organizations such as ASEAN to bring their grievances before multilateral judgment.

China’s position on the Security Council doesn’t help matters. Matters that are brought before the Council that aren’t to its liking quickly receive the veto that China so rarely issues. As an example, the situation in Myanmar managed to make its way onto the SC’s agenda in 2007, a resolution was drafted by the West, and found itself quickly toppled by China and Russia. The one area where China begrudgingly allows the UN Security Council to intervene is in the matter of North Korea, but even there the People’s Republic prefers to take matters through the informal Six-Party Talks mechanism.

The same “backyard principle” can be seen in the lack of Latin American issues that make their way to the Security Council. As an example, Mexico, where drug violence has claimed nearly as many deaths as the uprising in Syria, though criminal in nature rather than state-based, has practically zero chance of making the Council’s agenda. The United States’ domination of hemispheric matters makes it so that issues south of its border will never make their way to the Security Council unless in times of absolute necessity. Excessive meddling from other states as during the Cuban Missile Crisis may prompt this sort of push, and even then only to attempt to rally the international community’s sympathy or push the US’ own narrative.

Further, the balance of the Permanent Members of the Council in terms of taking proactive steps is inherently skewed away from strong action in Asia. The more liberal of the P-5, the United States, France, and United Kingdom, draft and present the majority of resolutions that involve strong action on the part of the international community, including actions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter. Russia and China, for their part, are much more interested in the status quo, preferring to invoke issues of sovereignty in the face of demands for action by the other permanent members. This pattern, as I looked at in one of my first posts, is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

The Middle East and Africa as it stands are the home of the vast majority of conflicts that the Council deems appropriate to deliberate upon. In these states, there is either a unified will to act or a complete lack of interest to block such action. In the former, the resources invested in the regional and its geostrategic importance to all five permanent members, have earned it a place on the agenda in perpetuity. In the latter, there is no real power base, no states who have enough heft to push back on international action within the region, leaving its crises free to be placed before the UNSC.

The problems of Asia are not likely to stay confined to Asia in the coming future. The potential for conflict in the South China Sea remains high and joins any number of looming flashpoints in the region. As the United States seeks to balance China’s rise by strengthening its ties with the other rising powers, however, the likelihood of China allowing those very conflicts to come before the Council will dwindle. The halcyon days of the early nineties, where issues bombarded the Council constantly with resolutions passing by the dozen on issues around the world with China known primarily for its abstention may well be finally past. While I highly doubt we will return to a Cold War-level of stagnation on the Council, I am beginning to worry that we will see a return to the era when only matters not directly within the sphere of influence of either of the new superpowers will be able to reach the ears of the Security Council.

January 11, 2012

The biggest challenge facing sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program? Mission creep.

I posted a little less than a week ago on the effectiveness of Iran’s sanctions, and yet the debate continues apace on the Internets. The need for this is simply beyond me, but what are you going to do? I suppose that more useful discourse is being produced. I suppose. In any case, we’ve seen a few different pieces crop up in the last few days, the latest to come across my Blackberry being a piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter. In it, she pushes for a solution that allows both the United States and Iran to save face, advocating away from a regime of sanctions for sanctions sake, a conclusion that many others have come to. This is hard to do, though, in light of pieces like the Washington Post piece that was published last night, originally with the title “Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. Official”.

Which leads me to think about the noticable mission-creep that seems to be occuring when it comes to Iranian sanctions. I noted on Friday the growing scope of the national and supranational embargoes being placed upon and considered against Iran. In that post, my focus was on the unconsidered humanitarian effects that these sanctions would impose, but I want to take a step back and consider the larger picture surrounding them. When the international community first agreed to place sanctions upon Iran through the UN Security Council in response to their lack of cooperation with the IAEA in 2007, they were extremely targeted, focusing only on the clear-cut pieces of their nuclear production. Since that time, their scope have grown both in the Security Council and from the United States and its allies.

At the same time, the United States has had sanctions and embargoes of its own against Iran in place since 1979. There is no question that these are in place to punish the regime as a whole, with the intended effect of breaking their ability to have any sort of sway or power on the world stage. The place where the current standoff with Iran gets tricky is when you try to delineate the two sets of sanctions. On the one hand, you have the goal of a pause or complete halt of Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation with the IAEA in verifying its claimed peaceful nature. On the other hand, you have the United States’ broader goal of weakening Iran and countering its many, many uses of proxies and asymmetric force to push back against US aims and policies in the region. Over the last month, we’ve seen a blending and merging of the two into one homogenous mass of punishment where it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends.

The United States is not making this any easier, in overtly lobbying its allies to unilaterally up pressure against Iran, including long-sought embargoes on oil. This leads one to wonder whether it is in the national interest of the US to separate the two more forcefully. Increased pressure on Iran on all fronts does have the possibility of a greater willingness, in Washington calculus, that Tehran will change its behavior on any range of issues beyond its nuclear program. However, seeking to advance goals beyond those that can be resolved through the P5+1 negotiations hinders the United States’ case for continuing and increasing the sanctions regime. The national security and foreign policy components of the government need to find a way to make clear the distinction between the two movements. Mission creep away from merely slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable to Tehran, and in fact serves as a greater impetus to want a nuclear weapon. If the regime feels that the only way to survive is to produce a nuclear weapon or face economic ruin, you can bet that if I were them? I’d be racing for full nuclear capacity.

January 6, 2012

Needed in Tehran – Some Common(s) Sense

In my post earlier today on Iranian sanctions, I mentioned that I wanted to talk a little more in-depth over just what that inflamed rhetoric coming out of Iran means as far as a US military response goes. Because both sides see it coming, and I know that the majority on each would prefer to stop all-out war from happening. There may be many individuals on the right drumming up cause for attack, pushing us to defend poor indefensible Israel. The Iranian people are bracing themselves for a coming war, already facing the effects of the sanctions that the regime has brought down upon the state.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric noted in my last post  takes several forms, but none come closer to setting off conflict than the Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, as many people know, is the bottleneck through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass. The first threat, several weeks ago, caused a 2% jump in oil prices, and came with a warning for the USS John C Stennis’ carry group to stay out of the area. This was met with a yawn by the US Navy. In a new effort to rattle the US, Iran has promised that it will be holding another set of exercises, this announcement only 10 days after its last set of war games and missile-tests in the area. It’s also likely these exercises will be around the same time as joint US-Israeli missile defense drills near the Strait.

All of this sabre-rattling is the quintessential sound and fury amounting to nothing. There’s a reason the open ocean is called “the global commons”. Because under international law and the law of nations, the high seas are for the use of all states. Period. There’s no ownership of the high seas, of which the Strait of Hormuz is definitely a part. And it’s a good thing. Iran should be glad that no one state has sole jurisdiction over the commons, though the US unquestionably dominates it for now. Why should they be glad? Because it allows for the very oil that they desperately need new customers for to be transport abroad. Because it means that they in turn have the right to patrol their territorial waters, though they tend to be a little fuzzy on just where that line is. And most importantly, they should be glad because it allows us to do things like save Iranian nationals when the Iranian navy can’t. The very carrier group that Iran warned has saved an Iranian fishing boat from a group of pirates; the CO of the Destroyer that actually did the rescuing is a woman. Danger Room has video. So that happened.

Under the same international law that would be broken if Iran actually closed the Strait, the United States was able to act against the pirates that held those Iranian fishermen. I was going to go on a long, chest-thumping rant about how our naval and air force capabilities would grind Iran’s forces into dust if they actually attempted to step to us, as it were, but you know what? It’s not worth it. The Islamic Republic needs to think twice and realize that the biggest chance of US conflict with Iran isn’t their navy shutting the Strait. It’s the fact that in the event of a mistake, an accidental firing upon of a US ship during an exercise or boarding say, then there’s no way to stop the tidal wave that would be coming, no dialogue, no release valve. In ‘learning’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has forgotten about the many, many other times we have waged “kinetic action” against a state. Landing ground forces is in no way a necessity for the United States; from our ships in the Fifth Fleet, which easily sailed through their first exercises, Tehran surely must realize we could rain down punishment upon Iran in whatever proportionate or disproportionate response we saw fit at the time. And there would be no way to put on the brakes.