Since this is the last Focal Points post, I thought I should write about one of my core foreign policy beliefs. Along with Foreign Policy in Focus and most of those who span the spectrum from liberal to left, one of our most pressing concerns is U.S. intervention in foreign affairs.

It began with the Barbary Wars (1801–1805 and 1815) against Morocco and the independent Ottoman Empire provinces Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis. How  we have come full circle — beginning our foreign intervention in Arabic-speaking countries and returning in the 21st century. But the original intervention was to halt piracy of American merchant ships and concomitant hostage-taking, payable to the rulers of those states. It wasn’t to protect our oil interests or to establish a footprint in the Middle East, as today.

Foreign intervention wouldn’t be such a hot-button issue if the United States weren’t expected — and seemingly glad — to take the lead in deciding when a state’s sovereignty is no longer to be respected. In fact, tyrants in many states, Syria for instance, hide behind the concept of state sovereignty and commit horrible crimes against their own people in order to retain power. But determining that and leading the charge against such a government should not fall to the United States.

In the absence of world government, an idea that has been a complete non-starter since it enjoyed its moment in the sun after World War II and the introduction of nuclear weapons, the designated arbiter of international order (after the United States) is the UN Security Council. But difficulty that the member states — United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France — experience in forming a consensus can render the Security Council ineffectual.

Obviously, if the Security Council and not the United States were ordaining intervention on sovereign soil when a state is committing crimes against its people, the United States could avoid bearing the brunt of the blame from those opposed to intervention. All the superpowers in the world are a lot for terrorist such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State to take on in retaliation.

A key issue is that the Security Council is crippled by vetoes or the threat of vetoes. I recently wrote about a paper written in March 2015 titled Failure to Protect: Syria and the UN Security Council by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies of the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

… much of the blame for failing to help end the devastation of Syria lies with Russia and China. They vetoed United Nations Security Council draft resolutions holding the Syrian government accountable for crimes against humanity. … Dr. Adams wrote:

With each failure of the Security Council to hold the Syrian government accountable for its actions, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces deployed more extreme armed force. This, in turn, strengthened the most uncompromising and severe elements within the armed opposition, especially those with external sources of sustenance. The net effect has been to turn Syria into the world’s worst case of ongoing mass atrocities, civilian displacement and humanitarian catastrophe.

The use of the veto in a mass atrocity situation is inconsistent with the aspirations of a 193-member General Assembly that no longer believes that sovereignty should constitute an unrestricted license to kill.  In particular, there is growing pressure to uphold the UN’s 2005 commitment to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. … Issues relating to humanitarian access, negotiating a political solution and ending impunity for mass atrocities remain complex and fraught with political danger. But the inability to successfully resolve any of them after four years of conflict constitutes a catastrophic historic failure on behalf of the Security Council. [Emphasis — and extra-emphasis added.]

… The cruel truth is that there is no easy solution to the suffering of the Syrian people, but that does not mean that the Security Council has to choose between invasion and inaction.

A 2010 paper by Citizens for Global Solutions titled The Responsibility Not To Veto: A Way Forward goes beyond the Responsibility to Protect.

In October 2005 the United Nations’ (UN) member states unanimously endorsed the responsibility to protect (R2P). … This principle affirmed that each state had ‘the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ as well as ‘their incitement’ (paragraph 138). Moreover, should any state be found to be ‘manifestly failing to protect their populations’ from these four crimes, the world’s governments committed themselves ‘to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter’ (paragraph 139).


This paper proposes that the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (P5) should agree not to use their veto power to block action in response to genocide and mass atrocities which would otherwise pass by a majority. The concept of the ‘responsibility not to veto’ (RN2V) has been discussed in a variety of international forums for nearly a decade as an element of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). However, while the Member States of the United Nations (UN) unanimously endorsed the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle in October 2005, the P5 have yet to operationalize it. Adopting an agreement which removes the use of the veto in cases of genocide and mass atrocities would be one step to implementing the R2P agenda.

It might have helped Rwanda and Kosovo.

Although Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is not a case where a P5 member threatened a veto in order to stop a proposed military intervention, it is relevant because it demonstrates the potential power that P5 members can exert over the Security Council’s decision-making process in response to mass atrocities. … several P5 members, notably France, the UK and the US, used their influence during the Council’s private deliberations to prevent the deployment of a reinforced peacekeeping operation in the first few weeks after the genocide began in April 1994. Kosovo 1998-9 This episode of threatened veto power occurred in the context of the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces in the territory of Kosovo during 1998 and 1999. Throughout 1998, NATO members on the Security Council tried informally to secure a Chapter VII resolution authorizing the use of force to prevent Serb forces conducting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Germany and Italy were particularly insistent that NATO obtained the Security Council’s blessing before engaging in military action. Russia and China, however, made it equally clear that they would not sanction any use of force against the authorities in Belgrade because they viewed Kosovo’s crisis as an internal problem for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. … As Adam Roberts noted, NATO decided that ‘it could have been more difficult to get public support for a military action which had actually been vetoed in the UN, and the whole process might expose divisions in the alliance.

As well as Darfur.

The debate in this case revolved around how international society should respond to the mass atrocities that occurred during a civil war which centered on Sudan’s western province of Darfur. In this episode, the major controversy concerned the informal threats made by the Chinese and Russian governments to veto any Security Council resolution which might authorize the use of military force, or even serious economic sanctions, against the military junta in Khartoum. Despite much rhetoric emanating from Washington which condemned what it referred to as the ongoing genocide in Darfur – especially in the run up to the 2004 presidential election campaign – no UN member state ever came close to contemplating military intervention. … In this sense, the Russian and Chinese threats served as convenient diplomatic camouflage for the unwillingness of Western (or any other powers) to even seriously threaten military action against Khartoum.

The issue is even more nuanced. You are urged to The Responsibility Not To Veto: A Way Forward in its entirety. Finally, it mentions the solution of a task force.

‘A principal aim’ of US policy in the Security Council ‘should be informal, voluntary mutual restraint in the use or threat of a veto in cases involving ongoing or imminent mass atrocities. The P-5 should agree that unless three permanent members were to agree to veto a given resolution, all five would abstain or support it. This should apply, in particular, to resolutions instituting sanctions and/or authorizing peace operations in situations when mass atrocities or genocide are imminent or underway.’