UN Matters For US – OpEd


Napoleon has said, “In war only the commander-in-chief understands the importance of certain things and only he, through his will and his superior understanding, can vanquish and overcome all his difficulties”. (1)
At times people do not support the cause of war their commander-in-chief is supposed to lead. When the people feel that the war is not meant for maintaining peace but is conditioned to escalate into dangerous war mires, then no level of weaponries and battle skills can give the commander –in-chief – the level of self-confidence and moral power that is the most significant for him to win a war.

There is a world-renowned book titled ‘The Art of War’ written by one of the greatest war strategist Sun Tzu’ more than 2,500 years ago and is still highly appreciated among war strategists and analysts. His famous principle – “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat”, (2) is widely quoted by strategists of war worldwide.

James Clavell – a Second World War veteran of the Royal Artillery of Britain and prisoner of war at the hands of Japan , who later became an American citizen, has made a remarkable observation In his foreword to this, thin and tiny book by Sun Tzu. In his remarks Clavell says:

“I truly believe that if our military and political leaders in recent times had studied this work of genius, Vietnam could not have happened as it happened; we would have not have lost war in Korea . . . ; the Bay of Pigs could not have occurred; the hostage fiasco in Iran would not have come to pass; the British Empire would not have been dismembered; and in all probability, World Wars I and II would not have been waged, and the millions of youths obliterated unnecessarily and stupidly by monsters calling themselves generals would have lived out their lives according to their Karma.” (3)

What I mean to say is that we need better knowledge of war not only to win a war but ultimately to ensure peace and progress of the people to whom it is claimed that they are fighting wars.

No Single Nation Can Ensure Global Peace

There are two longest period of peace among the great powers – one was after Vienna Congress in 1815, that had the responsibility to remap European order following the fall of Napoleon. It continued up to 1914 prior to World War I. Although, there was a brief interruption during Crimean War in 1854 for over the right of Jerusalem between Russian and Ottoman Empire that was later joined by Britain and France against Russia, more or less Europe remained peaceful. Next, such a long period of peace
began after World War II in 1945 that has continued up to now.

The Concert of Europe that comprises the big five – Austria, Russia, Britain, France and Prussia maintained peace after 1815 and again after 1945 another big five – United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have somehow worked together in United Nations in maintaining world peace and stability.

This was evident on September 27, when the U.N. Security Council unanimously reached on a landmark decision aimed at destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles that successfully averted a dangerous war situation in the most volatile region of the world. The Syrian crisis – following the popular uprising against the President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime has already claimed the lives of some 100,000 people with evidences of use of poison gas.

After the UN Security Council decision U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an exhilarated mood claimed, “We are here united tonight in support of our belief that international institutions do matter, international norms matter”.

Three days earlier, U.S. president Barrack Obama in his speech delivered in United Nations General Assembly had challenged the world body that if the UN fails to make Syria accountable to its stockpiles of chemical weapons then it will clearly show that “the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”

During the same speech Obama, indicating Russian president Vladimir Putin and those opposed to American attack on Syria claimed, “. . . there were those who questioned the legitimacy of even a limited strike in the absence of a clear mandate from the Security Council.  But without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.”

Obama may have experienced many pressing conditions. For a great country he is leading, it is natural too. However, in expressing his stern displeasure with the UN, the president of the world’s most powerful country and the country that had played the greatest role in creating this body after the failures of– League of Nations, and has led this body to maintain peace for all these years, was indeed -a great irony.

The UN may have many limitations and failures too, but it has also established that the humanity needs a global body like this. Only such an organization can ensure a high degree of balance of power among major countries and control events that can endanger peace and stability and ensure human progress. The world needs this body to protect smaller countries, discipline the big appetites of powerful countries, and ensure safety and happiness of millions of people living in painful socio-political and economic conditions.

Obviously, no one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real authority and representation to maintain balance among major powers and say NO to them. If in their bids for employing more powers in the name of their national interests, powerful countries find tendencies to bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council’s authorization, then indubitably, it will make smaller nations suffer at the whims of big powers and will ultimately kill the credibility, authority , spirit and power of this global body.

Considerably, but when international order collapses, no nations however powerful they are – can have power to control the emergence of so many Afghanistan, Syria or al Qaeda or the situations that led to the World War I and II.

Putin’s Public Diplomacy

Amid Syrian Crisis, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin employing public diplomacy in a skillful way, made an exceptional appeal to the American people on Syrian Crisis with an article that was published in The New York Times. (4)

The day the article published, was itself a most sensitive and painful day for American people. Putin’s idea worked. It saved Barack Obama and United States from a war that could endanger American interest more critically in already an unpredictable region at a time when United States has already begun to suffer from its huge cuts in its defense spending.

Vladimir Putin’s direct appeal to American people and Congress members worked. He pleaded that the United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent, the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. According to Putin, the profound wisdom of this body has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

Through the article, Putin called American people and Congress to stand by the rationale of the United States envisioned by its founders that was enshrined in the UN charter. He appealed the United States to abide by international law, and reminded American people to weigh the pros and cons of use of force especially in countries like Iraq and Libya where violence are increasing and new waves of terrorism have been unleashing. He also pointed that peace and stability in Afghanistan is not certain once the international forces are withdrawn.

He warned, if Syria is attacked, it would invite more chaos, anarchy, and terrorism. The risks outweigh the benefits of such an attack by destabilizing the whole region of Middle East and North Africa. He asks how a country that claim its foundation is based on rule of law, can violate the international law and the mandates of UN Security council that was provisioned in UN charter by the consent of America, itself.

Putin also challenged American President Obama publically; “if you cannot count on international law” you force other countries to resort on acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) for their security- a mockery of nonproliferation. He also challenged Obama’s reiteration of “American exceptionalism” that according to him undermines the basic principle of democracy and freedom that depends in a great moral code – “God created us equal”.

After United States cancelled the Moscow summit – between Putin and Obama during the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg earlier this month over the American intelligence-leaker Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, Putin considered to take the lead and made a tactical move to appeal the American people directly. His approach according to Jeremi Suri , an American professor of history and public affairs was similar to an approach applied by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (5) 50 years ago. Khrushchev’s famous article “On Peaceful Coexistence” was published in October 1959 issue of prestigious ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal.

Suri has recalled that during the decade Moscow’s image in the United States had rapidly deteriorated. Therefore, in his article, the Soviet leader asserted that his country was a peace-loving society and did not seek war with the United States. Rather, according to Suri, Khrushev argued – Washington and Moscow must refrain from conflict and allow people especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, which were just emerging from colonial rule, to choose their own forms of government. The Soviet leader criticized U.S. leaders for aggressive efforts to reverse communist advances in Central Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and other areas, asserted non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. He also blamed the U.S. for interventions in other countries and that were creating conflict everywhere.

The situation now somehow was similar as mentioned by Khrushev. However, Putin achieved a grand score among American people and they turned against military strikes in Syria that created adequate pressures upon Congress and Obama himself. Besides, Putin has markedly achieved a fair amount of diplomatic gain for his country and according to Robert Skidelsky, he also has “rescued Obama from making a mistake that could have wrecked his presidency” as well. (6)

Obama’s Speech in UNGA focused on Putin’s Article

The banner of hope Obama carried among American people during his election campaign was perhaps only next to John F. Kennedy in recent history. A war-fatigued country with sickened economy was desperately looking for a new face to lead them with their hopes and rescue them from the odds of war and worsening economy. He successfully nurtured their dream, promised to fight against their frustrations, and convinced them that it was he – who could serve their purpose.

The same person was now going to engage their country in another war and there was every probability that the war on Syria- at the heart of Middle East had every possibility to drag America in another Vietnam.

Moreover, President Obama knew it very clearly that American people were not with them and he admitted it in an interview with Scott Pelley just two days before Putin’s plea was published. In his interview, President Obama said “. . . I understand deeply how the American people, after a decade of war, are not interested in any kind of military action that they don’t believe involves our direct national security interests. – – – I get that. And members of Congress I think understand that.” (7)

It is interesting to note that in 2007, when President George W. Bush was supposed to make an attack on Iran, as a Senator and presidential candidate for 2008 election, Barack Obama was asked whether Presidents have the authority to launch a military strike without congressional authorization; Obama had a precise and prompt answer to the Boston Globe. “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat.” (8) Obama had said.

Another presidential candidate and now the vice president Joe Biden during the same time had even threatened to impeach President Bush if he unilaterally attacked Iran. “And I want to make it clear, I want it on the record, and I want to make it clear, if he does, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and former chair of the Judiciary Committee, I will move to impeach him.” (9)

On the lights of these things and along with pressures against any such attacks on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government that had claimed the lives of 1,400 civilians including 400 children, on August 21, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a military strike on Syria.
Obama had waited for another two weeks to respond what Putin claimed in his New York Times op-ed. In his speech Obama delivered in United Nations General Assembly on September 24 was mainly focused on what Putin had mentioned in his op-ed in the New York Times.

One thing is clear; Americans are one of the finest people in the world. When they feel that the basic norms, values, and reason that they regard as the identity of their great nation, is violated – they can never pardon even to their presidents and are not prepared to listen any excuse from their top officials – however great they are. They were prepared to punish even the great visionary President like Richard Nixon and not to listen the immense personalities like Henry Kissinger and Zibignew Brezinski when they felt that their dignity is undermined and their interests are violated.

American people although had no love for Putin or Assad, did not listen Obama – the man whom they had elected as a change agent to find a safe exit from the War on Afghanistan and Iraq that had cumulatively cost America at least some $ 3.3 trillion. (10) They did not want their country fight another war in Syria, where obviously their vital national interest was not directly connected.

Only United Nations Matters in a G- Zero World
Ian Bremmer, in his provocative book (11) has rightly termed the present day world order as a G- Zero world where “. . . “no single country or a durable alliance of countries can meet the challenge of global leadership.”
Bremmer has further elaborated that “in a world where so many challenges transcend borders – from the stability of global economy and climate change to cyber attacks, terrorism, and the security of food and water for international cooperation has never been greater”.(12)

Obviously, such cooperation demands leadership – requiring agility, adaptability and the skill to manage crises coming from unexpected directions. (13)

Unquestionably, all the problems and challenges people are facing in any corner of the world have transcended all national and regional borders and have gone global. This demands highly effective global governance – that means – global institutions and globally accepted decision-making procedures making it mandatory to engage as many nations as possible. A forum of dialogue for all, a forum that willingly and intensely can protect the interest of all, and a forum that can earnestly seek compromises to resolve the crisis of people and relieve their pains in every part of the world , is the greatest need of our time.

Undoubtedly, a restructured United Nations to address the 21st Century global order where countries like India, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Turkey and South Africa are also included as the permanent members of UN Security Council, can manage all these challenges more successfully that it has done so in all these years since its inception.

(1) Lawrence Freedman, edited (1994), War, Oxford, page 214.
(2) Sun Tzu (1981) The Art of War Hodder and Stoughton, page 22
(3) Sun Tzu (1981) The Art of War, (1981) Hodder and Stoughton, page 1.
(4) A Plea for Caution from Russia, The New York Times, September 11, 2013.
(5) Offensive Charm, Foreign Affairs, September 16, 2013
(6) Robert Skidelsky, Project Syndicate, September 19, 2013.
(7) CBS News, September 9, 2013.
(8) Alex Altman and Zeke Miller, TIME August 27, 2013.
(9) Ibid, TIME
(10) Confront and Conceal (2012) Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, Broadway Paperbacks, New York, page 427.
(11) Ian Bremmer (2013) Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, Portfolio Penguin, 2013.
(12) Bremmer ibid page 3-4.
(13) Bremmer ibid page 4-5.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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