PRESIDENT’S COLUMN: It was one of our councillors at AIIA NSW, Professor Jocelyn Chey, who first drew my attention to an astonishing op-ed by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in the New York Times late last week. She was particularly taken by the last paragraph:
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
You have to read the whole article to understand its context. As Putin says in the introduction, he is using it to talk directly to the American people and their political leaders. I cannot think of a precedent for the Kremlin doing this before. Here Russia’s president makes the case for the Obama administration to drop its plans for a military strike on Syria because of the Al Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons.
As we now know, Russia and the US have since reached a deal to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, albeit over a period of months rather than days. So Mr Obama’s threat to use force has paid off, alongside the unwillingness of staunch allies like Britain and Australia to be part of the plan, and Russia’s own role.
This leaves us the opportunity to scrutinize other aspects of Putin’s New York Times article. Some of this has already been done. The Washington Post – under new ownership and no doubt miffed because it did not get to carry it – questioned whether it was Putin’s own work. The paper made the point that the Russian leader’s English was nowhere near as good as the well-structured sentences of the op-ed.
This is not the point. We all know political leaders have well-paid speechwriters – including in Australia; especially in Australia. The article carried Putin’s by-line, and the New York Times, one of the more fastidious newspapers for fact-checking, would not have published it if it thought the sentiments were anything other than those of the man in the Kremlin.
The Australian claimed Putin’s article had sparked “global outrage”, and then quoted two Americans in support of that view. The paper was right, though, to question Putin’s ruthless invasion of Georgia and to point out that his claim that Russia has been the only good global citizen in the Syrian conflict was absurd.
Putin’s comments on the United Nations were interesting. He wrote: “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
Many will agree with that. But as the Australian diplomat Mike Smith pointed out at a meeting of AIIA NSW at the Glover Cottages this week, the authority of the United Nations Security Council has been undermined by the use of the veto by Russia (and China), by the composition of the UNSC itself, and by the dominance and dominating attitude of the P5 (the permanent members). For those that missed our meeting, these views were also well explained on Wednesday morning’s ABC program AM.
The time is ripe for an overhaul of the UNSC, and we cannot expect Britain or France to lead it because one or both of them has to give up their position on P5, and as Smith suggested, hand it over to the European Union. But now that Obama and Putin have found a way to agree on dealing with Syria (which, of course, may or may not work) the time has come for the United States, Russia and China to take the lead, with encouragement by Australia) to reform the way the Security Council works. Remember that the Syria agreement was a bilateral one reached outside the UN.
This brings me back to Putin’s last point on exceptionalism. Despite its vast military superiority, the United States has no divine right or moral authority to unleash bombs on other countries, even those run by unpleasant regimes. Nor, for that matter, does Russia or China.
Certainly former president George W Bush claimed that right after the appalling 9-11 attacks, and there were many who sympathized with that view and who joined the Coalition of the Willing , including Australia. In hindsight, many now regret the invasion of Iraq, and the American-led war in Afghanistan has been lost, just as the former Soviet Union had also experienced defeat years before.
The United Nations Security Council is the only body with the authority to intervene militarily in another country’s affairs if it deems it has a responsibility to protect (R2P) the population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The problem, as mentioned earlier, lies with the exercise of that authority. The coming weeks will be a real test of the UN’s effectiveness as it carries out its sweep of Syria’s chemical weapons. If it succeeds, its reputation will be strengthened. If it fails, the need for reform will become even more urgent.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW)