American conservatives have long criticized the United Nations (UN) as a talking workshop, a debating society, that fails to get almost anything of substance done. Liberal scholars, analysts, and pundits have dismissed these arguments, seeing them as products of the hawkish right-wing of U.S. politics. Perhaps, but conservatives do have a legitimate beef, and the events in Syria, to be sure, are providing another example of the weaknesses and sluggishness of the UN.
In short, the UN has failed on Syria. There have been lots of meetings and lots of talk, but little agreement and even less leadership and action. Russia and China have twice thwarted efforts to pass strongly worded resolutions that might have helped the situation in Syria. Both countries are more interested in protecting their interests and coddling murderous tyrant Bashar al-Assad than ending the bloodshed. And the UN-Arab League representative to Syria, Kofi Annan, has engaged in shuttle diplomacy with the Syrian government, but has been stymied by Assad's unwillingness to take the talks seriously.
Yes, after weeks of complaints and scoldings from the West, it now appears Russia and China are softening their stances. Both have publicly expressed concern about the violence and a desire to see it end immediately. And in a surprise move, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently offered blunt words for Assad: "We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and ... is making very many mistakes."
Today, Russia and China, along with the rest of the UN Security Council, backed a French-drafted statement of support for Annan's peace drive. The statement requests Assad and the Syrian rebels to "implement fully and immediately" Annan's six-point peace plan, which includes a cease-fire and access for humanitarian aid groups and organizations. Further, the statement proclaims the Security Council will "consider further measures" if Syria fails to comply with Annan's plan.
This is good news, certainly, but let's not get carried away just yet. Russia still supplies arms to Assad, arms that are likely being used to mow down the Syrian opposition. It doesn't support the idea of Assad stepping down immediately, and thinks that his departure is something that should only be broached in the context of negotiations with the opposition. Even worse, Russia effectively watered down and weakened diplomatic efforts at the UN. At Russia's behest, the UN statement does not condemn the violence but expresses "gravest concern" at the government-sponsored violence and "profound regret" at the death toll. Additionally, Russia signaled it would back the UN statement, but only on two conditions: that there were no ultimatums in the text and that Annan publicly specify the details of his peace plan.
Meantime, recent reports suggest that energy-hungry China is concerned that its foreign policy position on Syria risks angering oil giant Saudi Arabia and the other oil producing Gulf countries. This is why China reconsidered its strategy toward Syria, going so far as to support the UN statement. Even so, I have grave reservations about China's role in Syria. After all, Beijing really didn't want to sell out its buddy and ally in Damascus.
My guess: to appease Gulf countries, China will do just enough to appear as if its part of the solution, but at the same time act as enough of an obstructionist force to prevent the dynamics on the ground in Syria from changing significantly. As an example, it will be interesting to see how China, and Russia too, responds if Syria doesn't comply with Annan's plan. In this case, the likely scenario is that both countries will seek to block any punitive measures from being applied to Syria, which thus means there won't be any credible enforcement mechanism in place.
And undoubtedly, please let's not forget the major problem here: it took 8500 people to die and Assad to retake territory seized by the rebels, which allowed him to consolidate his position in power, before the UN could find consensus on a diluted statement that likely lacks teeth. Truly sad.
Arguably, the most helpful and productive institution on Syria has been the Arab League (AL). The AL has publicly expressed concern and dismay at the level of violence. It has even suspended Syria's membership. The AL put forward a multi-pronged template to deal with the ongoing conflict and violence in Syria. Among other things, this template places blame on the Assad regime, calls for an immediate cease-fire, and recommends a political transition to a post-Assad Syria. These recommendations have served as the bedrock of the various resolutions which have been debated and blocked at the UN, and they continue to inform diplomatic discussions. Clearly, though, the AL hasn't been a savior. Much like the UN statement, the Arab League’s plan lacks a method to ensure Assad's compliance, which gives him an easy out to continue his mayhem and remain in power.
In the end, I wonder if this set of events says something about future international relations (IR). In particular, does this foreshadow a greater, more prominent role for regional institutions? Anne-Marie Slaughter has put forward a similar claim about future IR. But her argument rests on the belief that regions will be inspired by the "successes" of the EU and that world problems are becoming so complex as to require time and effort from various regional players, not just the great powers.
One part of Slaughter's logic is dubious, however. Regional institutionalization won't flourish because countries see the EU as a success story. The EU is an enfeebled, debt-laden body that's slow to react to crises, even those at home or in its backyard. Which countries are inspired by that? Instead, I see a number of other possible factors at work. Culture, politics, complexity, sure, and desires for dominance and respect, are possible drivers of enhanced, strengthened regional multilateralism
Another potential driver could be the failure of the UN to address important issues. Simply put, the UN's failures have created a vacuum of leadership and responsible action in IR, and regional institutions are more than willing to insert themselves into this gap, for a couple of reasons. One, regional bodies can respond to problems in ways and at speeds that the UN, as it exists today, simply can't. And two, by undertaking more roles and responsibilities in the world, regional institutions can garner greater prestige and respect--two very useful, fungible currencies in IR. The case of present-day Syria, with the AL attempting to seize the moment, nicely illustrates my point.
It is certainly plausible that the rise of regional institutions like the Arab League, the African Union, and ASEAN, among others, follows from the aforementioned logic. Each are filling a need in the world, carving out their own space, and steadily becoming more esteemed and relied upon by major international actors, including the UN. This is a trend that could very well endure. And it is a topic to be followed and studied more closely in the future.