Imagine the scene.
Secretary of State Kerry is talking with passers-by on a Ukrainian city street.
Suddenly, he’s accosted by armed men. Taking refuge in a café, he calls for help. Outside, the group of Russian irregulars waits menacingly. “Leave Crimea or else,” they say. Lacking any security detail, Kerry begs a British news crew to wait with him. Hopefully, he reasons, their journalistic credentials will protect him.
But rescue doesn’t come. Reluctantly, Kerry is forced to leave Ukraine, and his mission ends in unequivocal failure.
That’s what just happened last Wednesday — only not to John Kerry. Instead, the victim was his U.N. opposite
number, Robert Serry.
Sure, had Kerry been the target, the Diplomatic Security Service would probably have ruined the mob’s day. But that’s beside the point. What really matters here is what this incident tells us about the U.N. in the 21st century.
In this one incident, we’ve seen how the world’s greatest global institution can be rendered impotent by a small group of thugs possessing big ambitions. More than that, Serry’s café siege has given a face to the U.N.’s response in Ukraine.
First, Putin invades. He does so by flouting the most basic premise of international law — the inviolability of sovereignty absent threat. He does so with arrogant glee. Then, the U.N. reacts.
With condemnation? Nope.
With sanctions? Not a chance.
With an “appeal” for calm? Bingo!
Of course, it’s far from funny. Actually, it’s catastrophic. Because what we’ve witnessed over the last week is a metaphor for what international law has become: something that is revered at dinner parties in the West, roasted at dinner parties in Russia, and referred to subjectively at dinner parties everywhere else. Today, international law isn’t simply ignored by the bad actors around the globe; it’s perverted to their ends.
For another example, take the catastrophe in Syria. Here, supported by unwitting props in the West, Putin has used international law as a KGB-style “active measure” in support of Assad — as a shield against meaningful intervention and a tool for the regime’s consolidation.
Yes, the U.N. has many talented employees and has done extraordinary work supporting Syrian refugees. Yet as an institution, the U.N. is supposed to be far more than a big NGO. It’s supposed to be an organization that has the confidence and the capacity to be a fundamental force for good. Specifically, in the cases of Syria and Ukraine, an organization that can confront Russia’s barrel-bomb malevolence.
But it’s not just Russia. Not by a long shot. Since the end of the Cold War, with very few exceptions (the Gulf War being the most obvious), the U.N.’s failure has been measured in a horrific body count.
Chew over some morsels from this glorious record.
In the early 1990s, the U.N. struggled to deploy peacekeepers in Bosnia and then, when it did, utterly failed to give those forces the authority to protect innocent lives.
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, while hundreds of thousands were chopped to pieces, the U.N. stuck to the New York City bar scene.
During the Kosovo War of 1998–99, the U.N. was nowhere to be found. Its most profound contribution to that conflict? Ruling on an absurd technicality that Serbian troops had not committed genocide.
Indeed, even in success, the U.N.’s record has been embarrassing. In late 1999, when it finally intervened in East Timor, it did so only thanks to Australian leadership. Again, in Sierra Leone in 2000, the British Army had to come to the U.N.’s rescue — its forces in the field were being overrun by glorified gangs.
And then there was Iraq. Facing Saddam Hussein’s murder of hundreds of thousands, the U.N. applied a corrupt sanctions regime. Served by prostitutes such as former French president Jacques Chirac, Saddam looked forward to the day when the sanctions would be gone.
On February 28, the day after Russia’s invasion, the U.N.’s leader, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, had an important commitment at U.N. headquarters in New York: embracing the new ambassador of the psychotic necrocracy that is North Korea. The video speaks volumes. A round of saluting guards, handshakes, warm smiles, and utter vacuousness. Herein resides the U.N.’s great myth: that global security is somehow preserved by photo opportunities and polite conversation and consorting with despots.
The truth is very different.
In the end, global security is guarded by values that are applied with resolution. By those who seek friendship but won’t excuse aggression. By those who stand watch.
And mean it. And are known to mean it.
Those like SFC Joseph Gantt. SFC Gantt lost his life while serving the United States under the banner of the United Nations in the Korean War.
His remains were finally repatriated last December. At the ceremony, Mrs. Gantt described the man she had married: “He was a good husband. He was a good soldier — that was something he loved. He got out of [World War II] and right into another. That was his life.”
A life well lived, in pursuit of values that are in stark contrast to the willingness to tolerate aggressive dictators that defines today’s U.N.
— Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to the Guardian.