By Olivia Robinson, on 4 January 2014
By Isabelle Younane and Aled Goddard
Jack Straw, in his capacity as the inaugural Chair of the Advisory Board to the recently launched UCL Institute of Global Governance, spoke at UCL on 28th November 2013.
Straw began his lecture with the lofty ambition that “like a T.S. Eliot poem, I shall be informing the future by reference to the past,” and it is the past that formed the brunt of his lecture, outlining the progress of the United Nations from the birth of the League of Nations to the present day. He then spoke briefly on the current UN state of play and ended with the perhaps tame, had he truly wished to inform the future, assertion that it “will continue to play a central role”. Straw’s conception of the UN and its achievements was overwhelmingly positive, stating that over his 35 years in British government “the world has become a better place for its inhabitants”, and suggesting that ‘this progress would have been a lot less had the United Nations not been working’. What did appear to the case, however, is that Straw valued the UN as mainly a forum for discussion. This taps fairly clearly into an oft-mentioned criticism of the UN, that it lacks definitive decision-making and a propensity for action of its own. Straw, however, did not see this as a problem, assuming that this was its main utility.
The international community has learnt from its unilateral blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in a more “cautious” Security Council, “and that’s not bad thing,” said Straw. The days of boots on the ground are fizzling away; diplomacy, persuasion and economic sanctions are the way to restore international stability and stem civilian bloodshed. Straw pointed to past sanctions on Libya and, more recently, on Iran as paradigms of the UN’s fulfilment of its ‘Responsibility to Protect’, a term that turned the ‘right to intervene’ on its head under the International Commission of Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. But this responsibility, coined on the eve of 9/11 and imperative for a world in the midst of globalisation, may not be met under Straw’s water-coloured vision of the UN as a mere “forum for forming alliances.” For Straw, the “immutable fact of the Security Council” achieved its greatest reforms in the expansion of non-permanent members and the birth of concurring abstentions; the idea of extending the veto did not cross his lips. Idealising diplomacy and other peaceful measures may certainly get the thumbs up from states worried about impinging on UN Charter-protected sovereignty, but in a world where arms proliferation and terror groups are rampant, excess dependence on diplomacy could waste time, and lives.
The former Foreign Secretary’s main proposal for reform was that of expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council, giving places to India, Japan, Germany and Brazil. To these new members he would not, he emphasised, extend veto power. With no extension of veto power, this act might seem to be a token gesture, bowing to popular demand without seceding any real control. Indeed, Straw later acknowledged the inertia of this proposal, paraphrasing Shimon Peres in stating that “if a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved but to be coped with over time”.
But this “fact of the Security Council” has not been short of success, insisted Straw, whose ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ perspective found support in the recent diplomatic ‘triumph’ in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’s cooperation with the UN resolution to dismantle his army’s chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 prompted praise from John Kerry. The US Secretary of State joined Straw’s enthusiasm for negotiation in saying, “diplomacy can be so powerful that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war,” according to a BBC report after the September resolution. But both Kerry and Straw seem to have overlooked the possibility that Assad’s peaceful gesture could be a smokescreen for further human rights violations. Even if this is not the case, the sarin nerve gas attack in August was the tip of fatal iceberg that had killed 100,000 people under the nose of a deadlocked Security Council. In prematurely praising the success of diplomacy in Syria, Straw neglects one of the most fundamental problems within the UN: what to do when diplomacy fails.
Straying from his pre-prepared speech, Straw provided us with more illuminating insights and unequivocal answers than we would otherwise have had. For example, in responding to a student’s question on whether he would ever give up the UK’s Security Council veto power, Straw answered no, that “it would be seen as an act of some madness… from everybody else in the world. Can you imagine the French giving up their veto? Or Russia?” This in itself was an interesting answer, as it encapsulates rather nicely something that many a politics student will have learned with regards to international organisations. Even in the modern world, this could be seen as showing a Realist conception of the world, being worried about relative gains concerns, with an asymmetric information deadlock resulting from not knowing the policy of a rival government, or indeed from knowing what it would be, but being put at a disadvantage by that.
So Straw painted an optimistic picture of the United Nations, finding ‘Progress’ in a state of ‘Paralysis.’ But he implicitly concluded that the weaknesses within this multilateral organisation are inevitable, and aside from minor reforms, we would be better off accepting the UN for the “imperfect but necessary, occasionally unsuccessful” institution that it is. For him, the United Nations finds success in facilitating international discussion, for peacefully resolving conflict through negotiation, and through maintaining the UN Security Council in its relatively fixed state. It’s a speech that finds resonance in marginalising those disputes that don’t slot into current UN capabilities, rather than pushing them to the forefront and finding a solution.