On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment on Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly. The articles defining genocide and the actions punishable by the UN are incredibly vague. Even if you sit now, and reflect on the definition of genocide, there is no clear number or percentage of a particular population that makes the point of action clear. Killing people is bad yes, but how bad does it have to be before it becomes genocide? We don’t know.
The UN is cited, and I think fancies itself, to be the pinnacle of cooperative, global liberalism, or internationalism. On its websites, it boasts predecessors that were almost the UN, but not quite, in an effort to display the seeds sown throughout history of a dream for a peaceful, cooperative world. Liberalism is clearly the umbrella that liberal interventionism and internationalism fall under, but it seems part and parcel with the UN’s image.
The term “United Nations” was said to have been coined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, as the Allied Powers and secondary Allies formally united against the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis Powers. It was not an institution of peak-liberalism. It was an alliance formed of a few countries, who saw themselves as ideologically opposed to the Axis, or were concerned for their own hegemonic status in their region, or took a gamble and thought the Allied Powers more likely to be victorious. Following the war and the horrific realization of the massive numbers of Jews, homosexuals, political dissents, ethnic minorities, and mentally and physical disabled killed during the Holocaust, the UN began to fashion itself as the gatekeeper of peace.
The UN’s charter vows to stand in opposition to war, offering to call up willing member-states to send peacekeepers, if the conditions are right. Again, the language is vague on when the UN will shakes itself awake and see violence as a call to action. As I see the ruins of Aleppo and all the citizens trapped there falling to the Assad regime, it strikes me that liberalism, UN par excellence, only works if all the teams are playing the same game. Think of all of the military conflicts and genocides that have occurred since the official formation of the UN and the Prevention of Genocide Convention. Serbia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Indian Sikh, Kurdish, Darfur, Shia, Yazi. This is certainly not all of them. And it will never be. You don’t need to fall down the rabbit hole of the internet to follow up on the dismal global responses to these genocides. That’s not even counting military involvement not considered genocide that the UN has turned a blind eye to.
In 2005, the United Nations issued The Responsibility to Protect in the Prevention of Genocide, stating that sovereignty does not protect a state from international interference in the face of genocide and war crimes. However in an op-ed, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon from the Council on Foreign Relations declared R2P dead a little over a decade later. Liberalism only works if everyone plays the game, and the US has not wanted to play by those rules. Following WWII, the superpower status of European states was over. But as we know, the US and the USSR emerged victorious, not simply because they were on the Allied side, but because they were able to stand strong and fill a vacuum that was left in the wake of Europe’s destruction.
Cue the Cold War, a decades-long drama of misunderstandings and military and economic flexing on the part of the US and the USSR. Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, Central, Southeastern and East Asia all become play things to execute puppet wars and conflicts for the pursuit of ideological hegemony. If you’re not keeping track, that’s most of the world. The US and USSR both committed and allowed atrocities to occur all over the globe in an effort to climb to the top of political food chain. Deep down, the knowledge that liberalism will only work once we are all in agreement seems to ring true. Realism is for dealing with the enemy, or someone who is not clearly an ally.
The UN became the site of pissing contests for the US and the USSR, members of the P-5 of the Security Council. While the other ten member states serve two-year terms and rotate, the US and now Russia stand It was about international cooperation, so long as the idea was proposed by either of the two giants and was in pursuit of their self-interests. Little has changed. Perhaps you were sitting in a political science class a few years ago, learning about the Cold War, thinking it was over. Now you probably feel ridiculous and are regretting not studying more Russian history or politics.
I’m willing to bet a large part of Putin’s goals are centered around revitalizing the Cold War and rewriting a history where Russia wins. The Syrian Standoff, with Russia hell-bent on protecting the sovereignty of a dictator seems to be a good case for it. The inability to agree on what injustice is and looks like, and to be able to set aside self-interest erodes the UN’s power and undermines any of its declarations. Certainly as we have seen in deliberations over what to do regarding Syria, Iran and Assad’s Syria are not willing to play either. But how did we get here? Were we too “realist” for our own good? Did the US finally overextended itself? President Obama is often called a pragmatist or “an admirer of foreign-policy realism”.
In a sense this is true. He was particularly worried about events in the Middle East that would be a direct threat to the United States; to him, the United States’ protection and interests as a sovereign nation were paramount. That checks out. He did seem particularly concerned about Israel, but we do not have the time or space to get into that complicated relationship. President Obama realizes that, despite frustrations with the US-Israeli relationship, cannot wither on his watch. Concerns over civil unrest and war in Syria put pressure on the region. However, as Jeffrey Goldberg states in his Atlantic tome, the Assad regime did not fit the measures of pressing threats to US security. Again, seems pretty realist.
However, President Obama’s calls to action on various issues in this light, should have already rung hollow. But maybe it’s because he’s eloquent, maybe because people want to believe more, they did not. We took seriously the “red line” about chemical weapons. I think surely many of us thought it would not be long for the rebels to take Assad down, much like we saw in Libya during the Arab Spring of 2011. But the insistence on the part of the President made it seem as though we did not need to worry about the effectiveness of the rebels to take down a tyrant. Perhaps all this time we have misunderstood. He is a realist, using liberalism’s rhetoric. The interventionist attitude towards Syria was couched in concerns about starting another war in the Middle East, a war that would not be winnable. But the belief that Assad would give up his chemical weapons because an agreement was drawn seems bafflingly unrealistic.
Why would we trust Assad to do anything, other than harm his own people to stay in power? Thus far, that is all he has shown us he is willing to do. With the backing of Iran and Russia, Assad has shown no interest in bargaining or removing himself for the stability of a country or region. The famous description of “leading from behind”, in particular in Libya, seems to oddly enough come to the forefront of Obama’s decision making. None of the other NATO forces wanted to act against Assad without the United States.
To reference Goldberg again, it seems as though President Obama came into office truly desiring the change he spoke of on the campaign trail. He wanted to question the orthodoxy of the foreign policy establishment and he wanted to avoid any deep further entrenchment into a region that was spiraling out of stability. But change turned to disillusionment and turned to inaction. President Obama’s foreign policy stances and actions are plagued by critiques of overthinking and no decision-making. There is no game time decision during his tenure in office.
Which brings me to why I was reflecting on any of this in the first place. Seeing the videos of citizens, journalists, and aid workers in Aleppo, saying potential good-byes as Assad’s troops close in on the city. Some people are emotional and have a few tears in their eyes. Some are calm. Some in utter disbelief at what they are watching. No one is sobbing or breaking down. They are in disbelief at the destruction they are seeing, but not the neglect. And as I write, the reports and unbelievable photos of the Russian ambassador to Turkey being killed come through. The gunman reportedly shouting “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”
I stated earlier that the US did not play by the rules of the liberalism required for the UN to work. The US stood a superpower, made itself an indispensable nation in the new era following WWII. The US sets the agenda for NATO and often for the UN. We have strong interventionists, like Samantha Powers, who hold high cabinet positions in our government. And yet, liberalism is not what we abide by. It is stifled unless we want something warm and fuzzy added into a speech.
We proclaim it. We want it to be so. Either in the form of multi-national coalitions problem solving or by an interventionist force, dedicated to the protection of humanity. We have neither. Realism in some form has won. The US saw Syria and Assad, deemed it not a direct threat, and ignored it. The government continues to ignore it, as people share articles on Facebook and give donations to NGOs. If interventionism and internationalism are not the ‘ideology of the land’, so be it. But we should have at least have the decency to stop pretending as though it is.
If the US runs the show, regardless of whether or not President Obama would like it to be, then it is on the US for the rubble, the dead, and the blowback that will occur once Assad reclaims the country. To the rebels in Syria, the average citizens who didn’t want to be warriors, to the journalists who wanted the world to see the atrocities, to the aid workers believing in the liberal dream, we failed you. Sorry and outrage won’t cut it. Under the guise of red lines, under sanctity of human rights, under the belief that a coalition of sovereign nations seeking the greater good, liberalism failed you.