The Russian parliament approved the use of force in Syria on Wednesday. This may have been a direct result of President Vladimir Putin's visit to the United Nations General Assembly, but it also is a reminder that the Security Council is being bypassed as a forum for important decisions such as whether to go to war.
The UN has a framework to authorize intervention in conflicts: the Responsibility to Protect. R2P, as it's commonly known, was introduced by the General Assembly in 2005, and has served as the basis for Western military interventions in Darfur and Libya. The doctrine holds that if a country is failing to defend its citizens against atrocities and war crimes, the international community should step in.
In 2009, a report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon clarified R2P. It said force should be used only in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which refers such matters to the Security Council. And therein lies the problem: any of the Security Council's five permanent members -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- can veto any proposal to invoke R2P.
For Western nations, the problem is Russia's veto power. "It's a Darwinian universe here," U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recently told The Guardian. "If a particular body reveals itself to be dysfunctional, then people are going to go elsewhere. And if that happened for more than Syria and Ukraine and you started to see across the board paralysis, it would certainly jeopardize the Security Council's status and credibility and its function as a go-to international security arbiter." Speaking at the General Assembly on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of using its veto as a "license to kill" and "an act of grace and pardon for crimes." Since R2P was enshrined as an international norm, Russia has used its veto 10 times; the U.S. has used it three times. The U.S. traditionally uses its veto to protect Israel, and Russia has mostly blocked what it considered efforts to interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries, by intervening on behalf of the regimes in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and, most recently, Syria.
China, which has backed six of the Russian vetoes, agrees that the Security Council shouldn't be used as an instrument of regime change. In a few instances, Russia has used its veto to influence crises close to home. It voted against the extension of an international mission to observe the situation in Georgia, after the two countries waged a brief and disastrous war, and against an attempt to set up an international tribunal to punish those who shot down a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine last year.
In the first nine years of the UN's history, the Soviet Union was the only Security Council member to use its veto. In those days, R2P didn't exist and the USSR was allowed to run its satellites in Eastern Europe more or less as it saw fit. It was granted veto power as one of the victors of World War II.
That war ended 70 years ago, however, and Ukrainians, for one, don't see any reason their neighbor should enjoy an outdated privilege at their expense. Other countries also are calling for a review of post-World War II agreements. This week, the leaders of Germany, India, Brazil and Japan -- the so-called G-4 -- met in New York to discuss a reform of the Security Council. These countries want to be permanent members, too.
There have been many proposals in recent years to give permanent seats to representatives of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and to curb the permanent members' veto powers.
These proposals make sense, but implementing them would probably make the Security Council an even less effective forum for decisions about military action. In a recent paper, Nadia Banteka of the University of Pennsylvania Law School wrote: In sheer numbers there appears to be a relative advantage on states opposing R2P in a reformed UNSC. States likely to favor action under R2P's third pillar are France, U.K., USA, Japan, and Nigeria while states likely to oppose it and be more reluctant towards R2P as a whole are Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Egypt. A possible swing state that may favor or oppose R2P on a more ad hoc basis is Germany. This set is substantially different to the current dynamic of the UNSC, which in its permanent seating is in majority terms dominated by states favorable to R2P.
Not even a "Responsibility Not to Veto" in cases involving genocide or major war crimes, advocated by France as part of a voluntary code of conduct for Security Council members, would change these dynamics. In a simple vote, most of today's regional powers would be disinclined to support military operations, probably because none of them would want to be on the receiving end of such action.
If there is such a thing as an international community, it is passive. Changing the Security Council rules to make them more democratic would probably make the forum even more benign, sluggish and useless. If that were to happen, the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and Russia, China, India and the bigger Middle Eastern countries on the other, would be constrained only by domestic concerns when deploying troops.
Perhaps it would be better to relieve the Security Council of R2P-related decisions. In the proposed expanded, fairer format, it would be better suited to imposing international sanctions on countries that abuse military power.
Even such a reform, however, would have problematic consequences. In Syria, all parties have some blame: Bashar al- Assad's regime for waging a war on its own people; Russia and Iran for arming and backing this regime; and the U.S. and its allies for arming the opposition. All have played a role in making the rise of Islamic State possible.
In the "Darwinian universe" Powers described, the Security Council is facing extinction, no matter how it is reformed. Seventy years after it was established, the world order is unsettled, without any prospect for a productive renegotiation. Putin, for one, apparently has decided that it's every nation for itself.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.