For nearly five years, the UN Security Council has failed to end Syria’s suffering. The numbers are numbing: The war has claimed 250,000 lives and displaced over 50 percent of Syria’s prewar population of twenty-two million. The grinding conflict has deepened sectarian turmoil in the region and created the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. The tragedy has also laid bare an inconvenient truth about the inherent limits of the Security Council in an era of great power rivalry. Because in Syria, the system worked—just not for the Syrian people.
By "system" I refer to the rules of the international game set out in the United Nations Charter. At the San Francisco conference of 1945, world leaders established a new instrument to preserve international peace and security. The UN Security Council was empowered to pass resolutions legally binding on the entire UN membership. But its five permanent members (the “P5”) exacted a heavy price in accepting their responsibilities as guarantors of the postwar order. They insisted on the right to block any Council enforcement action that ran counter to their national interests. The rationale for the veto was plain: no structure of peace could be viable if war could be authorized contrary to the expressed wishes of one of the world’s policemen.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, many Americans have bemoaned Russian and Chinese vetoes—both actual and threatened—for blocking Security Council action. But it is worth recalling that seven decades ago the United States and the Soviet Union were equally insistent in demanding a veto for the P5. During the Dumbarton Oaks conference of 1944, a U.S. senator complained to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the emerging blueprint for the UN Security Council constituted "a discrimination against small nations.” Hull replied bluntly that the United States "would not remain there for a day without retaining its veto power." That provision was "in the document primarily on account of the Unites States. It is a necessary safeguard in dealing with a new and untried arrangement."
Indeed, the veto enjoyed strong bipartisan backing in the United States, including from Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On February 16, 1946, the Soviet Union cast the first-ever Security Council veto (in an effort, as coincidence would have it, to hasten the removal of French forces from Syria and Lebanon). “The system worked," Vandenberg told his Senate colleagues, by making great power consensus a requirement for Security Council action.
In the ensuing decades, the United States itself would have more recourse to the veto. In the wake of decolonization, it often found itself on the defensive—particularly in safeguarding Israel from what U.S. officials considered one-sided resolutions. Since 1975, the United States has used the veto seventy-three times, more than other member of the P5.
What the Syria conflict lays bare, however, is that the "system" is amoral, even when it "works." It is rigged to advance the interests of the great powers—and to reduce the likelihood that major war will break out among them. The system provides a baseline order. That is nothing to sneeze at, given the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. But such an order is a far cry from justice and—as we have seen in Syria—it often fails to deliver peace.
Short of an overhaul of the UN Charter to eliminate the veto—a wholly implausible scenario—it is unclear what can be done to ameliorate this situation. The French have proposed a new international norm—the "responsibility not to veto." This would take the form of a voluntary (thus non–legally binding) commitment by each of the P5 not to veto resolutions designed to prevent or end large-scale atrocities, with the exception of when the resolution would run counter to a permanent member’s "vital national interests."
And therein lies the rub. For that loophole is one that is broad enough, as the saying goes, to drive a truck through. Indeed, one could make the case that this proposed caveat is already in operation. It’s just that the great powers—being great powers, after all—have expansive views of their vital national interests.
To be sure, the average number of vetoes cast each year has declined markedly since the Cold War—a promising sign. But the veto remains a non-negotiable symbol of P5 privilege, employed when core interests are perceived to be at stake, a situation more likely if great power tensions are high.
The upshot is that enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter will remain highly selective—focused on those crises and conflicts where P5 interests converge or, conversely, are absent. It is in the interest of all P5 members that additional states not acquire nuclear weapons—and thus they are relatively in agreement on the importance of nuclear nonproliferation. The Security Council has also vigorously expanded peacekeeping missions in recent years (though the results have been far from perfect) in countries where none of the members perceive a vital national interest, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
The tough situations will be those like Syria where the P5 are divided, and where advocates of enforcement action will continue to confront an uncomfortable choice of either staying on the sidelines or intervening with an ad hoc coalition that may provide a surrogate—if lesser—form of legitimacy. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the Security Council has failed for the last five years to restore peace and a political solution in Syria. That’s not likely to change. Syria underscores the futility of attempting to force agreement within a bitterly divided Security Council. Indeed, turning repeatedly to the same body and expecting a different result approaches the colloquial definition of insanity.
The Security Council is effective at protecting and advancing the interests of the P5. But, intended to provide order over justice, it fails those caught in the middle of great power conflict. That’s not just a failure of performance. It’s a failure by design.