REPRISE — The fruits of pacifist foreign policies: Aggression in Ukraine, atrocities in Syria

Viewing the developing Russian-Ukrainian war from the vantage point of March 3, 2014, it is striking to note how much of what has happened since was in effect a tragedy foretold. It has indeed been a tragedy foretold, like in a Greek tragedy where the audience (here, some in the audience) know the outcome, but the chief protagonists don’t, as they proceed to go about playing their tragic roles.

The question today (October 21, 2014), of course, is whether we can see further tragedies about to unfold and yet may still act to avert what the Greeks might have considered to be irreversible Fate.

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REPRISE — The fruits of pacifist foreign policies: Aggression in Ukraine, atrocities in Syria; Merkel’s fact-finding mission—a last chance to avert disaster?,” The Trenchant Observer, March 3, 2014.

First published on March 3, 2014

The new hybrid pacifism

The new, hybrid pacifism of Barack Obama and NATO countries has been obscured by Obama’s use of drones, and military operations begun long ago but now winding down in Afghanistan.

The military intervention of France and NATO in Libya pursuant to a U.N. Security Council mandate represented an exception to the general pacifism which characterizes Obama’s foreign policy, an exception and now rare case (outside of Africa) where military action is undertaken pursuant to authorization by the U.N. Security Council.

Other interventions by France and U.N. and African Union forces in Mali and the Central African Republic have reflected the paradoxical nature of current pacifist policies, which are hybrid in nature, admitting the use of military force to stabilize situations in African countries when there is a Security Council mandate or an invitation by the government of the target country.

However, often hiding behind simplistic interpretations of legal prohibitions, in effect ruling out the strong use of military force against powerful opponents when real blood and treasure must be put at risk, the new hybrid pacifism has the effect of ceding the playing field to ruthless countries such as Syria and Russia, allowing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and military invasions to effectively go unopposed.

On legal interpretations and justifications, see Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC, “Stepping Back a Moment – The Legal Basis in Favour of a Principle of Humanitarian Intervention,” EJIL Talk, September12, 2013.

The U.S. and other NATO countries, reeling from their losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little to show for their sacrifices, don’t want to live in a world where real military force may have to be used.

So they rule it out. U.S. and NATO military leaders, seemingly unaware of the impact of their words on adversaries, loudly proclaim they are ruling out the possible use of military force. This has occurred not only in the Ukraine, but also and repeatedly in Syria. These statements, like those of U.S. military leaders stressing the difficulty of taking military action in Syria, are essentially aimed at domestic audiences and allied governments while naively ignoring their impact on opponents.

Furthermore, it is painful to see military and NATO leaders allow themselves to get drawn into political debates, in public. These discussions should be conducted behind closed doors, without leaks to the press about what is going on or what leaders are thinking with respect to military action.

In Syria, this new, hybrid pacifism has been obscured behind cynical acceptance of Kofi Annan’s illusory six-point peace plan for Syria (and the promise of political settlement at the Geneva I and Geneva II peace conferences), and behind the simplistic legal argument that the U.N. Charter prohibits any military action (except self-defense) without the approval of the Security Council, even to stop the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale, as in Syria.

Under this interpretation, Russia would have been allowed to install nuclear missiles aimed at the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1963, the genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia would never have been halted, and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999 would have been allowed to proceed.

In a future world (after the Permanent Members’ veto has been eliminated), adherence to such a norm would be essential. In the meantime, we must rely on the closest approximations possible, limiting any such actions to the most narrowly circumscribed cases, where there is overwhelming support by the nations of the world for the action to be undertaken, and preferably when it is carried out under the authorization of another international organization.

In any event, this new form of hybrid pacifism has taken hold in America and NATO countries. As a result, Bashar al-Assad has been left free to commit his atrocities, which include not only the bombardment of civilian populations including hospitals and medical personnel, but also the arrests, torture, and executions in the night which do not make the daily news, and of which those who follow events closely only hear much later from international organizations when the latter report, for example, that maybe 80,000 people have “disappeared”.

Another, highly significant result has been Russia’s aggression against the Ukraine in February and March, 2014. This aggression follows that in Georgia in 2008, which NATO and the West allowed to stand, conducting business as usual with Russia afterwards. To be sure, Georgia was not blameless in the evolution of events. However, in the end Russian aggression through the illegal use of force across international frontiers was allowed to stand, without serious consequences for Russia.

Russia’s calculus in the Ukraine might have been very different had Anders Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO, not assured his members–and Russia–that options involving the use of force by NATO were not under consideration, and if, for example, NATO countries had put their military forces on alert, and NATO naval and air assets been strategically deployed within the region.

Now, however, absent a determined will to deploy force against the illegal threat or use of force, the pacifist leaders of the U.S. and Europe, and other NATO countries, must now resign themselves to the depredations of a Russian leader willing to invade neighboring countries in utter defiance of international law, and indeed the foundations of the post-WW II international legal and political order.

Given the current pacifism of the West, and given the fact that major consequences for Russia have already been triggered by its military intervention in the Ukraine, there is little to dissuade Putin from similarly using his military power to bring Georgia and Moldova (and other former Soviet Republics) back within the Russian “sphere of influence” or community of states.

China supports Russia, suggesting that it too might in the future be willing to settle its disputes with its neighbors through the use of military force.

Nonetheless, we need to recall certain hard-won lessons from history.

International law and order are in the end indivisible, for if the prohibition of the threat or use of force can be defied with impunity by one country in one part of the world, surely it can be defied by other countries elsewhere. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1983, it is worth recalling, the military operation was named “Operation Goa”, recalling the precedent set by India when it invaded the Portuguese colony and enclave of Goa in 1961.

Obama’s pacifism, and that of Europe and NATO, have left a vacuum in Europe which Vladimir Putin appears ready to fill with Russian military forces. Even if his actions are delusional, and make no sense in reality as the latter is understood in the West, they have already had momentous consequences which will reshape economic and political relations in Europe and beyond for decades to come.

Further, Putin’s actions have produced a situation in which the Ukraine has become a tinderbox, while madmen are running around with torches in their hands.

War is by its very nature wholly unpredictable. What could happen, for example, if Russians started killing Ukrainians, and Poland decided to send military forces to support Kiev in exercise of the right of collective self-defense?

Impact on Nuclear Proliferation

One impact from Russian intervention in Ukraine is of exceptional significance for the future of international peace and security. Following Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of the Ukraine in exchange for its surrender of its nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any arms control agreement with Russia could be ratified by the U.S. Senate so long as Putin remains in power–and probably long thereafter.

See Peter Spiegel, “Ukraine and the West: an international legal primer, Financial Times (Brussels Blog), March 2, 2014.

If one thinks carefully about the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine, it is obvious that Russia would have been extremely reluctant to engage in such behavior if the Ukraine still had the 1900 nuclear warheads on missiles it surrendered in 1994, when it also joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

One of the greatest impacts of the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine is likely to be the powerful impetus it will give to the forces of nuclear proliferation. Even in the context of the 5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, the invasion is likely to reduce the credibility of any guarantees of Iranian territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence to near zero, at least insofar as Russia is concerned..

A Last chance to draw back from the abyss? Merkel’s fact-finding mission

There may still be a slight chance to avoid unleashing the dogs of war, what the founders of the United Nations referred to as “the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” (U.N. Charter, Preamble, below).

Russia and Putin appear to be under a kind of delusional spell which seems to result from believing their own propaganda, having stirred up a public which appears eager to use military force, in scenes reminiscent of the enthusiasm for war felt among the populations of the European powers in 1914 on the eve of and during the first days of World War I.

In these circumstances, Angela Merkel’s proposal to send an impartial fact-finding mission to the Crimea and the Ukraine should be implemented immediately. Putin has told Merkel that he agrees to the proposition.

The mission could be undertaken under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or even an organ of the U.N. such as the Human Rights Council where Russia does not have a veto.

At the same time, it could be useful for NATO to place some military forces on alert and move military assets into place in case a need arises for them to be used.

Russia is spewing lies about what is going on in the Crimea and the Ukraine, and seeking to provoke violence which might provide a thin veneer of legitimacy to its legal claims that it is intervening in the Crimea to protect its nationals.

These claims should be rebutted immediately in official reports published by NATO and other countries. The fact that the transitional president of Ukraine has vetoed a bill which would have revoked the 2010 language law allowing use of Russian as a second language should be made known to every citizen in Ukraine.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev exchanged letters at the most critical moments of the crisis, when nuclear war was a most palpable possibility. Khrushchev sent one letter to Kennedy on Friday, October 26 which was conciliatory in tone:

If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, you and I ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knots of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

–“Krushchev letter of October 26, as received in the White House,” reprinted in Larson, “Cuban Crisis”, pp. 175-80, quoted in Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” at p. 355 (2d ed. 1999).

Saturday, October 27, when an American U-2 was shot down over Cuba, a much harsher letter bearing the stamp of the Kremlin’s collective leadership was broadcast over the radio, adding new conditions to the offer in the Friday letter. Kennedy decided to ignore the second letter and to reply to the first (in what was referred to as “a Trollope ploy”, alluding to the acceptance of ambivalent gestures as a marriage proposal, in Anthony Trollope’s 19th century novels).

The West should now follow Kennedy’s example, and accept Putin’s acceptance of Merkel’s proposal for sending a fact-finding mission to the Ukraine, regardless of what he or the Russians have said since. Moreover, they should do so at breakneck speed, blasting through the diplomatic procedures that normally slow things down. The goal must be to get the first elements of the fact-finding mission on the ground in the Crimea within a matter of hours, not days. Time is of the essence.

Reports from the mission, including daily press briefings or updates, could then help defuse the war fever in Russia, affording Putin a gradual way to climb down should he become sufficiently enlightened to do so. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that he may have unleashed organizational and bureaucratic forces which are not easily controlled, and may need time to be able to reverse course successfully when and if he comes to his senses and decides to do so.

The ends of the rope on which the knot of war has been tied must be loosened now, if at all possible, even at this late hour. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, assisted by her capable and experienced foreign minister, Walter-Frank Steinmeier, should lead the effort, with full support from the United States, France, Poland and other European and NATO countries.

The Trenchant Observer

Ommitted: Preamble to the United Nations Charter

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.