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Bitter truths on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Recently I contributed to the rather excellent MUNPlanet blog where I wrote under the deliberately counterintuitive title: The United Nations: Where talking about the rules matters as much as enforcing them? This marked my second foray into *other* blogs after my April 2014 contribution to e-IR entitled Crimea: A problem of and for international society.

In response to my July 2015 UN piece, I was asked:

“What is your opinion on the veto-restraint and what could be a way forward in making a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of the member states?” 

It’s a great question, and one I reflected on at length, engaging as it does what E.H Carr (provocatively) labelled the realist and utopian views of international politics, which the UN itself as a compact between power and ideals embodies…

Veto restraint is I feel superficially attractive and unlikely to occur. It is unlikely to occur because as I understand it only France of the P5 has adopted it and pushed it, notably in their 2013 General Assembly address. The UK position appears to be that we already do exercise veto restraint (last used in 1989) but in any case won’t sign up to the plans till the rest of the P5 do.

At the risk of undermining the piece, I don’t see the rest of the P5 – especially China, Russia and the USA – being sufficiently concerned about legitimacy costs to embrace restraint in principle let alone in practice. The P5 were very cool on the idea back in 2001 as part of original ICISS report, which is why it never made it to the relevant RtoP paragraphs of the 2005 World Summit.

That said however, as colleagues at the recent British International Studies Association conference speculated (particularly Benjamin Zala and Justin Morris) the disconnect between the rest of international society calling for restraint (led by the S5 and ACT) and the P5 refusing it, is a serious problem if we assume as I argue in my blog that international society is sustained by both axes of Clark’s consensus – that among the P5 but also that between the P5 and the rest.

I think veto restraint is superficially attractive because even were the P5 to agree to these proposals I fear that would simply shift their disagreements elsewhere; definition of mass atrocity and thus whether restraint applies, definition of their national interest and thus whether restraint applies. Thus, as with RtoP 2005, the creative ambiguities inherent in an agreement on restraint would become the new point of contestation. But then that’s *progress*.

Notwithstanding such implementation problems I fear that veto restraint in part at least assumes that with regards to RtoP/mass atrocities, more robust (i.e. Chapter 7) Security Council Resolutions  are the solution and that the obstacle to such a solution is the (P2) veto. Effectively this is the view that international society’s problem has been “in-humanitarian non-intervention” rather than the abuse of humanitarian intervention – which vetoes *supposedly* guard against.

Three problems in particular would be firstly how to successfully equip, deploy and sustain an intervention force (bear in mind the P5 not using their veto is not the same as their active support). In other words, more robust mandates could be included in resolutions but would they be enforced on the ground? Secondly there are limits to what interventions using force can achieve and thirdly there is the challenge of “after the intervention”. Whether you call this peacebuilding, nation building or the “responsibility to rebuild”, it would suggest international society having to exercise a trusteeship role in some cases in order to seek to prevent future violence, yet this is not a popular concept.

So whilst I am not quite engaging in a full throated defence of the veto I am warning that restraint raises as many questions as it may theoretically answer. The spate of Russian and Chinese vetoes of Syrian resolutions is somewhat exceptional and should be set against P5 cooperation on most other crises. So the use of the veto is perhaps less the root cause of problems and more the manifestation of them – restraint is unlikely to change this.

As for how to make a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of member states – I like the positive framing of broadening the national interest to include the global as it is more often perceived as restraining or even denying the national interest to appease others. It is of course the job of diplomats and statespeople but it would help if they were to conceive themselves as “good international citizens” and thus define their interests and choose their actions according to this identity and with reference to that framework. And here, in closing it should be noted that use of the veto is actually often justified in such terms, as checking irresponsible, precipitate or destabilising action which is not in the international interest.  

As a post script I would add it is worth considering how resolutions are drafted, which countries do most of the drafting, and that the tabling of resolutions is subject to agenda setting and pre vetoing. See Security Council Report, Whats in Blue and PassBlue for more. 

For a more informed view why not read…

Thomas Weiss from March 2014

Aidan Hehir from August 2014 

Oliver Stuenkel from January 2015 

Stewart M. Patrick from January 2015 

UNA-UK from February 2015