The Ukraine Crisis – The End of the System?

By Jack Harris, on 8 April 2014

By Anna Kruglova

The crisis in Ukraine has thoroughly put an end to Barack Obama’s famous “reset” of relations with Russia. It has revealed a cyclical tendency in Russia’s relations with the US and the West more broadly – much as in the 1990s, a relative thaw in relations has once again given way to tensions. Yet the Ukraine crisis has broader implications for international politics. It has revealed fundamental weaknesses in the international system that emerged from the conferences held in Yalta and Potsdam after the Second World War. State actors have created an environment that has left the system unable to engage with emerging issues and produce constructive responses, and allows problems to deepen and develop into full-blown crises.

The first problem – a lack of meaningful UN reform – has already been widely debated but bears repeating here. During the Ukraine crisis, the UN, the closest thing we have to a universal international institution, was once again been paralysed by divisions to the point where it was unable to muster any response beyond anodyne verbal condemnations and calls for negotiation. The structure of the Security Council must take most of the blame for this paralysis. The rotating memberships of the Security Council led to the bizarre situation in which countries with no direct stake in the crisis, such as Rwanda and Chad, were involved in the debates over the Ukraine crisis, while Germany, a key leader in the EU and an important partner of Russia, was excluded. As such, what discussions were held were largely useless, and the resolutions they produced were immediately vetoed by Russia. These issues have long been widely acknowledged, even by the Secretary General, but no efforts towards comprehensive reform has been made since 2005. Without reform, the UN will continue to be unable to respond effectively to international crises.

The second problem is that too many violations of sovereignty and international law have now gone unpunished for verbal condemnations to carry any weight. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were not sanctioned by the UN, while in Libya NATO blatantly disregarded the limits of the mandate granted by resolution 1973, which gave it the authority only to enforce no-fly zones, not to directly interfere in the conflict by bombing ground forces. All of these acts were admitted to be violations of international law and yet went wholly unpunished. With such precedents now firmly established, states will face ever greater temptations to break the rules.

Thirdly, in place of the common standards provided by international law, double standards are now firmly settled in the system of international relations. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while denying such recognition to Kosovo, which is recognised by the EU and the US. Debates over which of these new states truly deserved independence and recognition will likely never be conclusively resolved. What is clear, however, is that principles of sovereignty and self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter have become little more than tools deployed in support of concrete foreign policy goals of individual states.

Finally, one striking feature of the political rhetoric or “propaganda tools” on both sides in this crisis has been the frequent reliance on the trope of an “external enemy”, whether the threatening, mercantile West, aggressive, authoritarian Russia, Middle Eastern autocrats or rising China. Despite the economic interdependence of almost all nations in the modern world and the demise of a bipolar system of international relations, hostile discourses centred on scary “others” still appear to carry great political appeal. In a world in which national economies are tied ever more strongly to one another, such hostile discourses and models of political behaviour create risks that cannot be afforded.

This combination of factors has left the international system ill and flawed. The crisis in Crimea has provided only further proof of the relevance of these flaws to international relations. Naïve as it may seem to call for sweeping reforms of the international system, a commonly accepted framework for international law has to be found if such incidents are to be avoided in the future. If actors continue to disregard the rules that they themselves have established, we will see more crises like that in Ukraine in the years to come.

Image credit: Mstyslav Chernov

Jack Straw: Finding Progress in Paralyis

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.

Jack Straw with two UCL Masters students

Jack Straw with two UCL Masters students

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.