The blogger who I know as the Vineyard of the Saker (“Saker”) has written three posts on the subject of the Lavrov Kerry agreement of 14th September 2013, which has resolved the immediate Syrian crisis.  Though I have great respect for this blogger whose views on the Syrian crisis have been very close to my own, I think he has misjudged the nature of the agreement that Lavrov and Kerry have reached.  I wish to show that his fears concerning the agreement are baseless.

My intention was to post my response on his blog but unfortunately the length of my response makes that impossible.  What I propose to do therefore is write my response here and post a link to his blog.

Here are his three posts on the subject of the Lavrov Kerry agreement I take issue with:

The second of these posts sets out the text of the agreement itself with the parts of the agreement Saker is concerned with highlighted.

Before discussing the agreement there are two important points to make:

1. Saker is absolutely right to doubt the good faith of those in the US administration whose objective from the start of this crisis has been regime change.  The regime change agenda has not gone away.  On the contrary its recent defeat is widely (and wrongly) seen as a humiliation of the United States by much of the US political class.  Unfortunately that all but guarantees that they will now work overtime to try to reverse it.  There is no room for complacency.  A battle has been won but the war is far from over.  We have fierce battles ahead.

2. It is essential to understand Russia’s position, which has been consistent throughout this crisis.  This is to defend international law and the primacy of the Security Council and of the United Nations in securing world peace and to resist the extremely dangerous doctrine that has been gaining ground in the United States, Britain and to a lesser extent in France, which says that the governments of those countries have the right to intervene unilaterally to overthrow governments of which they disapprove and which they say misbehave.   I discussed this all in detail in the following article I wrote for my own blog.

Putin’s own comments discussed this further in his now famous article in the New York Times.

Lastly I would also refer to certain of comments discussing this very issue in a recent Crosstalk debate in which I appeared on RT TV, which as always was expertly handled by Peter Lavelle.

Turning now to yesterday’s agreement, Sergei Lavrov who negotiated the agreement is if he is nothing else an exceptionally experienced and professional diplomat.  He is not the sort of person to make unforced errors especially when he is negotiating from a position of advantage.  That in itself and Syria’s support for the agreement announced today (Syria has hailed the agreement as a “victory”) is in itself a good reason tor think that the terms of the agreement are in Russia’s and Syria’s interests.

Turning to the agreement I will now address the specific points in it that concern Saker:

1. Saker is worried that the agreement requires Syria to grant the inspectors “unfettered access”.  He presumably fears that this will set the stage for provocations such as took place with the inspection team sent to Iraq in the 1990s and which were subsequently used as grounds to claim that the Iraqi government was not cooperating with the inspection team.

The part of the agreement that refers to “unfettered access” is an unavoidable part of an agreement of this sort.  The inspectors have to have unfettered access if they are to do their work properly.  If Russia were to seek to deny the inspectors unfettered access the US would quite rightly say that Russia was not negotiating in good faith.  At that point the US would on past experience have simply walked away from the whole negotiation.  Obama would in that case have been in a much stronger position to argue for a military strike than he was before the negotiation took place since he would have been in a position to say quite rightly that Russia’s stance had exposed the whole negotiation as a sham.

Saker’s concern about “unfettered access” is really a concern about the impartiality of the inspectors.  That is a fully legitimate concern of which more below.

2. Saker is worried that the agreement will be set out in a Security Council Resolution.  He has previously and correctly argued that since Syria is joining the Chemical Weapons Convention such a Resolution is not legally needed.

In fact the decision to proceed by way of a Security Council Resolution reflects the Russian position not the US position in this crisis. It is Russia which throughout this crisis has insisted that it is the Security Council and the Security Council alone which is authorised to decide whether military action should or should not be taken against Syria.  It is Russia which has insisted that it is the Security Council alone that is entitled to judge whether or not Syria is in breach of its treaty obligations.  It is the United States, which by contrast has insisted and which continues to insist on its unfettered right to act unilaterally without reference to the Security Council in any circumstance where it judges it appropriate.

By ensuring that the agreement is set out in a Resolution of the Security Council Russia has ensured that the agreement becomes the property of the Security Council and is subject to the supervision of the Security Council.  That means that if there are any breaches of the agreement they must be referred to the Security Council, which Russia says can alone decide what to do.  By contrast if there was no reference in the agreement to the Security Council and no Resolution by the Security Council setting out the agreement then this would simply be an agreement between Russia and the United States.  The United States would in that case in conformity with its unilateralist doctrine consider itself free to decide without reference to the Security Council whether the agreement had been violated or not.  Knowing what we do about the eagerness of some people in the United States to launch an attack on Syria it is a foregone conclusion in that case that at some point in the future someone in the United States would argue that the agreement had been violated and would press for an attack without any reference being made to the Security Council.  Were that to happen it is more likely than not that an attack would take place.

3. Saker is concerned that the agreement says that in the event of breaches of the agreement the Security Council might take action under Chapter VII.

After the Libyan experience I understand Saker’s concerns about Security Council Resolutions that mention Chapter VII.  However, the text of the agreement shows that it has been carefully drafted with precisely such concerns in mind.

The reference to possible measures by the Security Council under Chapter VII follows directly from Putin’s comments in his interview with the Associated Press that I discussed in my previous post.

Putin said in that interview that Russia might in appropriate circumstances agree that the Security Council might authorise military action against Syria under Chapter VII.  As I explained in my previous post those comments were misinterpreted as an indication that Putin’s opposition to military action against Syria was softening.  In reality what Putin was doing was avoiding the trap Jacques Chirac fell into in the run up to the attack on Iraq in 2003.  As I have previously said, on the eve of that attack Chirac made certain comments that were misrepresented by the US and British governments as indicating that France would veto Security Council authorisation of military action against Iraq in any circumstances whatsoever.  The US and British governments on that basis were able to claim that there was no point in discussing the matter further in the Security Council because Chirac’s “intransigence” had already ruled the option of military action out supposedly making any further discussion pointless.

Having insisted on the sole authority of the Security Council to decide what happens in the event that the terms of the agreement are violated Russia cannot afford to appear to foreclose the Security Council’s options in advance by denying the possibility of action under Chapter VII.  Were it to do so the United States would again say that there was no point in leaving the decision to the Security Council since Russian “intransigence” had made that pointless.  The agreement has to refer to possible action under Chapter VII if it is to stick.

What Russia has however managed to do is to take out of the agreement any reference to military action or sanctions (as opposed to “measures”) under Chapter VII.  Russia has made it clear both in the body of the agreement and in the comments Lavrov made in his press conference yesterday that Russia expects (and is in a position to insist) that any action under Chapter VII does not initially take the form of military action or sanctions.

This is an important victory for Russian diplomacy.  It means that in the event of violations Russia can point to the agreement when it insists on a graduated response allowing time for diplomacy to work.

4. Having set out in the agreement what would happen in the event that there are violations of its terms the Russians have also managed to keep open the question of who might be responsible for such violations.  This is what has resulted in the paragraph that most worries Saker.   The exact wording of the paragraph is as follows.

“….in the event of non compliance, including unauthorised transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone, the Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter”.

(Highlights and Italics added)

The US and its allies have been insisting throughout the crisis that the only party that has used chemical weapons in Syria is the Syrian government.  Russia has strongly disputed this claim.  The wording of the paragraph and the agreement as a whole reflects Russia’s position.  Nowhere in the agreement does the agreement identify the Syrian government as the perpetrator of any chemical attacks.  The wording of the paragraph is intended to leave open the possibility that chemical attacks, both those that have already happened and any which might happen in the future, might be the work of the rebels and not of the Syrian government.

Having achieved this and in order to ensure balance (something which was previously completely lacking in all the draft Resolutions the US and its allies have presented to the Security Council throughout the Syrian crisis and which was also lacking in Resolutions 1970 and 1973 which were passed during the Libyan crisis) the agreement makes clear that in the event of violations of the agreement by any party the Security Council will take action.  I should say at this point that it is clear from the wording of the paragraph and from the agreement as a whole that it is the Security Council and not any other party acting unilaterally, which will decide what sort of action to take.  I say this because much of Saker’s objection to this paragraph appears to come from a groundless fear of the contrary and a belief, that is not supported by anything in this paragraph, that it makes possible unilateral action without the authority of the Security Council.

This part of the agreement is of course a natural result of Russia’s insistence that the agreement should leave open the question of who in Syria is responsible for any chemical attacks that have occurred or that will occur.  Having vested the Security Council with the power to act in the event of any violations of the agreement the agreement confirms that the Security Council may exercise this power against whoever violates the terms of the agreement.  That means either the Syrian government or the rebels.  The paragraph renders the agreement neutral and balanced something which as I said no previous Resolution proposed by the United States or its allies over the course of the Libyan and Syrian crises has done.

It will be for Russia to ensure that in the event of false flag operations the Security Council is not stampeded into authorising action on false premises in the way that it was stampeded into authorising such action against the Libyan government in 2011.  With inspectors on the ground in Syria reporting to the Security Council false flag operations ought to be more difficult and easier to expose.

5. Which brings me to what is actually the heart of the agreement and the part of the agreement which I suspect took the most time to agree.  This is the lengthy technical section that deals with the composition and control of the inspection team that will be sent to Syria to enforce the agreement.

What went catastrophically wrong in Iraq in the 1990s is that an enfeebled Russia ceded control of the inspection team in Iraq to the US government.  The result was that Richard Butler the head of the inspection team was reporting and taking instructions from the US State Department instead of the UN Secretariat.  I can remember him actually doing this in 1998 on the eve of Operation Desert Fox when he actually met with US officials before he met with anyone from the UN Secretariat.

If the same thing happens in Syria then the agreement is in serious trouble for all its other safeguards. Precisely so that does not happen the agreement goes into great detail about the composition, responsibility and accountability of the inspection team making it clear that it is a joint enterprise of the United States and Russia.

In other words Russia is going to be actively involved in the work of the inspection team.  Indeed I suspect that a significant proportion of the inspectors will be Russian.  Russia will have a say on how the inspectors carry out their work and through its position as a permanent member of the Security Council (the body the agreement says has the final authority) will jointly receive their reports and will be party to any decisions taken about how to respond to them.

Overall in my opinion this is the best possible agreement that could have been obtained in the circumstances and represents a triumph for Russian diplomacy and a victory for international law.  Assad for his part has been forced to give up his chemical arsenal and to allow inspectors into the country.  Saker has himself explained why possession of chemical weapons is not in Syria’s interests whilst I would argue that having impartial inspectors in the country able to report on what is actually happening there as opposed to relying on what are often mendacious reports from the Syrian rebels is strongly in the Syrian government’s interests.  It is worth at this point pointing out that on the two previous occasions when inspectors/observers were in the country over the course of this crisis – as a result of the Arab League peace plan and following Kofi Annan’s peace plan – it was the Syria government’s enemies who on both occasions successfully insisted that they should be pulled out.

I would add in passing that one further important gain for Assad from this agreement is that the agreement implicitly recognises the government he heads as the legitimate government of Syria.  I say this because at various times various persons including various western officials as well as officials of the Arab League have cast doubt on his legitimacy.

The US is now party to an agreement that requires it to accept the authority of the Security Council and which contains safeguards so that the inspection team created by agreement is not manipulated.  That does not mean that the Syrian crisis is over or that an attack on Syria will not take place.  Despite all the safeguards there may still be attempts to manipulate the inspection team as happened with the one in Iraq.  It will be for Russia and its ally China to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The US for its part must know by now that it stands little chance of bullying Russia (and by extension the Security Council) into authorising an unwarranted military attack on Syria.  However it continues to make clear that it still considers itself entitled to act unilaterally.   It is for persons like Saker and others who think like him to mobilise politically to ensure that public opposition to an attack that takes place without authorisation from the Security Council is so strong that it doesn’t happen.  The way to do that is through the sort of work Saker is doing on his blog.  By binding the US to act within international law and by upholding the authority of the United Nations and of the Security Council this agreement has made that task easier.

17th August 2013

Here is Saker’s response to my comment with much of which I agree.

Here is my response.

Dear Saker,

There is so much in what you say that I completely agree with.  The difference between us is actually very small. You are quite right in questioning the total bad faith of some people within the US government.  You are also absolutely right in saying that they will try to spin any agreement to mean what they say even if doing so goes against the plain meaning of the words.  Indeed they are trying to do that very thing now as they claim that the agreement requires a Chapter VII Resolution when of course it does no such thing.  They are also busy spinning yesterday’s report of the UN inspectors to say that it “conclusively proves” that the Assad regime carried out the gas attack on 21st August 2013 when the report itself is careful to do no such thing.  Here by the way is the report.

I would by the way add that there is nothing new in this.  If you go back to the 1988 Geneva Accords agreed prior to the Soviet pull out from Afghanistan you will find that the US again did the same thing.

The Russians for their part can have absolutely no illusions about this.  Remember they have had more history of trying to negotiate with the US than anyone else.

However the point always to remember is that the US is in a position to attack Syria at any time.  The question is whether this agreement makes such an attack easier or more difficult to justify given that the only real constraint on the US is US public opinion,  The short answer in my opinion is that it unequivocally makes it much more difficult.

The US public has shown that it does not want to become involved in a war in Syria.  Setting up a process for Syria’s chemical disarmament removes the one pretext for such a war that the hardliners had latched onto.  Putting in place in Syria an inspection team that will be partly under Russian control and which will include Russian personnel makes it more difficult for this process to be manipulated and easier to ensure that this process is carried out properly.

Having said that there is absolutely no room for complacency.  We are going to have a battle over the next few days over the text of the Security Council Resolution.  There will be a struggle over the composition and control of the inspection team itself and of its work.  More weapons will be sent to the rebels and attempts will be made to make conditions for the team more difficult to justify pulling it out.

The battle will be fought diplomatically (by Russia and China) and politically by people like us.  This is far from over yet.

By the way don’t underestimate yourself or the importance of what you do.


  1. This is an extremely interesting discussion and I will need to think long and hard about every point you make. I guess is that while I can agree with your interpretation of this agreement, I do not believe that this is the interpretation which the US will give to it. Obama’s and Kerry’s recent bellicose statements also point out to that. When dealing with a government of crooks and a diplomacy of crooks, one needs to spell out everything in ironclad unambiguous terms. After all, the UNSC Resolution on Libya did not at all authorize regime change. But it did contain this demonic little sentence about “all necessary measures” and that is all it took for the Western imperialists to attack Libya and tell Russia and China that the USA was not bound by their interpretation of this UNSC Resolution. This is exactly what I fear now. Anyway, I cannot give you a halfway decent reply right now, but I hope to be able to do that by tomorrow evening. Thanks a lot for all your are doing and for providing such a refined and thought-provoking analysis. Kind regards,
    The Saker

    • Dear Saker,

      I await your response with interest (which by the way please post on your blog).

      However on the essential point of bad faith you are absolutely right. Already with the ink on the agreement barely dry we see the US trying to rewrite the terms of the agreement by calling for a “strong Resolution” to set it out that will include deadlines that are not in the agreement and which I am sure will include threats of force under Chapter VII. The Russians of course will not agree and they are working on bringing the Egyptians in on side.

      The Russians are in a position of advantage since it will be difficult for the US simply to walk away from an agreement it has already negotiated. I strongly doubt that the US public would countenance a Congressional vote authorising force against Syria when there is an agreement in existence with the Russians for Syria’s chemical disarmament, which Syria has signed up to. Though there will be tough negotiations in the Security Council over the next few days ultimately it will be the Russian view which will prevail.

      Having said this, it is this serial bad faith on the part of US hardliners of which we are just seeing a further example that makes any and all attempts to negotiate with the US so difficult. Whenever an agreement of this sort is reached the US does not see it as a binding commitment it must honour. Rather it sees it as a starting point for more negotiations as it goes on trying to get its way. Worse still an agreement of this sort also becomes the subject of an internal negotiation between hardliners and moderates within the US.

      Having said this the reality is there is no alternative but to negotiate with the US. Remember the US can attack Syria at any time. The only constraint on such an attack is ultimately domestic. It is much better that there should be an agreement to prevent this than there should not. That way it becomes easier to mobilise opposition to it.

      • re: “The only constraint on such an attack is ultimately domestic.”

        I would have thought that was the least important thing. I would have thought that the damage to American interests from a war would have been far more relevant. This is the missile age, and it would be a good idea to keep its assets, like ships and Jordan and … far, far away. It’s a lot easier to keep the ships away, though. And allowing an attack over your airspace makes you part of the attack, so …

        As for the legal question, I lean in your direction over vineyard’s. But I’m a technologist, not a lawyer. From my point of view, one of the reasons for the Arab Spring and ZATO efforts against Syria is the rise in technology that Russia, China, and Iran are developing.

      • Dear Alexander,
        First, I apologize for the off-topic but I don’t have your email. I would like to ask for your expertise here. I just posted a little something to suggest what Russia should do about the Greenpeace issue. One of my commentators thinks that its not legally an option. Could you share with us (either here or on my blog) your opinion of the legality of my idea? Thanks a lot,
        The Saker
        here is the link to the post:

  2. Your points are well-founded, Alex and Saker, as Michael Bohm’s furious editorial for the current issue of The Moscow Times, “Obama Falls Right Into Putin’s Trap”, suggests.

    Bohm, evidently a booster of the don’t-think-just-strike-now doctrine so beloved of the U.S. lobbying sector and the Israel-firsters, is dancing with rage because

    (a) Obama (a euphemism for everything about the shilly-shallying peacemakers in the U.S. government – and there are some – Bohm loathes and despises) will be tied up “for years” in binding and tricksy UN language which will hamper America’s ability to act unilaterally. This, incidentally, was the overriding driver – whipped on at the time by the influential Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge – behind America’s decision not to join the League of Nations; because it would encumber America’s ability to decide for itself without outside advice and other restrictions.

    (b) The inspectors will be running around like the Keystone Cops looking for Assad’s “hidden chemical weapons sites that he moves around all the time”. Really? What, then, was the basis for Obama’s “red line” that if Assad “even so much as moves his chemical weapons, we strike”? How the hell would you know? Apparently he moves them around all the time with complete impunity. This is part and parcel of the attempt to get the premise that the Syrian government is to blame for all chemical weapons usage on Syria accepted into the collective wisdom, as well as the comical premise that the “rebels” don’t use them because they don’t have any.

    (c) Unless a military coalition falls upon Assad and removes him, he will never give up all his chemical weapons because they are his best defense against nuclear-armed Israel. What credible deterrent against a nuclear attack is offered by chemical weapons is not explained, and neatly avoids the subject of Israel’s own extensive chemical-weapons program as well as its refusal to join an international effort to rid the world of them. Chemical weapons are mostly useless against nukes, of course, but Bohm cannot mention they are a deterrent against a similar-capability attack without opening the door on Israel’s chemical weapons.

    (d) Assad should be punished for his crimes against humanity in any event, and the USA should have an unfettered ability to punish whoever it judges to have stepped over the line. Obviously, not everyone who has chemical weapons (Israel) or everyone who has used them indiscriminately resulting in great loss of innocent lives (USA). Don’t do as I do, do as I say.

    (e) Russia is only in the Security Council to act as a spoiler against everything the USA wants to do. It goes without saying the USA’s motives are pure and altruistic and in no way reflect self-interest or its own foreign-policy goals. However, at least on the issue of Syria, Russia has come down firmly on the side of international law, and uses international law as substantiation for its arguments. There is probably no reason to mention all the occasions the USA has acted as a spoiler against initiatives to rein in Israel, and when it has not had international law on its side. That most of the world agrees with Russia, and that those who don’t are almost exclusively lickspittles like Turkey or those desperately seeking a distraction from domestic problems, like France, (not to mention those whose economies are inextricably linked with that of the United States, like Canada, thus John Baird’s fiery denunciations of Assad as he quivers to attention and salutes the stars and stripes) is not mentioned.

    (f) R2P is a way to get around stifling international agreements on the use of force, as every Security Council member has the responsibility to act as soon as it sees a situation in which civilians are at risk. Since you can’t always wait for permission, you’re allowed to go ahead and atrtack, and sort the details out later. Umm…no, you’re not. And;

    (g) By committing crimes against humanity (as Bohm wants us to go ahead and assume Assad is doing), government heads automatically forfeit the right to sovereignty and it’s OK to make up a government of your own and muscle it into power. That one should just be treated with the contempt it merits, as the motive is fairly transparent.

    SF Reader referred to this genesis on my blog as “America’s Suez Moment” – the dawning realization that its days of rampaging about doing whatever it wishes are coming to an end.

    Unfortunately, the ever-edgy ZeroHedge’s Tyler Durden already thought of the phrase, and used it to head an also-interesting post on the economic implications, which includes some affirming geopolitical opinion as well, to wit:

    (1) The rise of Asia and the corresponding threat to the dollar,

    (2) Russia’s assertive stands, grounded in legal agreements but reflecting a new willingness to defy the west rather than just grumble about it, date back to the Greek financial collapse and Russia’s righteous scolding of European governments for bank-account confiscations – actually comparing them to actions by the Soviet Union, and

    (3) Power and wealth are not infinite, and are in fact always shifting. This also means you can be down and out one minute, and come back as a superpower a generation later, as Italy has already done twice – albeit never in the modern age. However, the notion that power and wealth are forever is at the very root of American exceptionalism. A painful rethinking looks inevitable.

    Thanks to both of you for a great discussion, the outer edges of which appear yet to be explored as the implications begin to pile up!

    • Thanks for this Mark!

      I find it very strange that Michael Bohm should repeat the old story about how Saddam Hussein supposedly fooled the UN inspectors and kept them on a merry dance given that everyone knows that in reality Saddam Hussein did no such thing. Saddam Hussein actually did get rid of his weapons exactly as he said he would. The problem was not that he led the inspectors on a merry dance. The problem was that the US and Britain didn’t believe him.

      For the rest I am afraid that I think that Michael Bohm has serious misunderstood both Russia’s stance and the R2P doctrine. Russia has never said at any point during the Syrian crisis that a country has some sort of unlimited sovereignty that entitles it to do whatever it likes within its own borders. As for Russia somehow failing to live up to its R2P responsibilities, that is a rather odd thing to say a few days after Russia has brokered an agreement for Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons.

      • What I find remarkable is that he avers the USA could use R2P to launch a unilateral military strike – and it is plain this is his recommendation, and that he belongs to the school that prioritizes administering a beating over being embarrassed, under the aegis of “doing what you say you will do”, as if as soon as the USA stops throwing its weight around, people will disrespect it – and yet, only a few paragraphs later, writes, “He can sit back and ­enjoy the U.S. military failures – as well as the rise in global oil prices – while at the same time endlessly preaching about the global dangers when the U.S. flouts international law and engages in military aggression against sovereign countries.”

        This suggests he knows full well that what he is suggesting is against the law, and encourages the display of lawlessness nonetheless.

      • P.S. Check out the site Bohm quotes as a reference

        for his far-out theory that Putin is actually the mastermind behind the chemical attacks, and that he gave Assad the green light to do it, hoping to lure the United States into a regional war. There’s just no way to explain that kind of thinking.

        It reminds me of the kind of conversation between two drunks that you overhear at a party, in which one expounds on a loopy conspiracy theory he would never say out loud if he wasn’t loaded, and concludes by loudly saying, “Is Putin crazy? Yep, crazy like a FOX!!”, to the accompaniment of much inebriated nodding and winking.

  3. Excellent post, Alexander, and excellent debate with Saker.
    You made a lot of good points about the various clauses of the Lavrov/Kerry agreement, and how they were the result of bitter experiences from the past. Russia learning from those experiences and trying to find a way to forge an agreement that is ironclad and permits no loopholes.

    But Saker is worried, like a lot of other people, that America will always find the loophole nonetheless. It must be exhausting for the Russian diplomats to try to guess, in advance, which loopholes Americans will try to squirm through, and to try to patch them in advance.

    American policy makers remind me of the Devil in the movie “Bedazzled”. The Devil purchases the hero’s soul in return for 7 wishes. The hero strives mightily to craft his wishes so cleverly that they cannot be undermined; and yet the Devil always finds a way to sabotage them without actually violating the letter of them.

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  6. Hello, Alexander. I really like the way that you explain everything here, especially where you explain how the US considers itself not bound and, sometimes, not subject to UN authority. However a point that I thinks ought to be discussed is the effectiveness of the UN Security Council. Seeing as it is a great instrument of political control, and of checks and balances, by the same reason it is subject to work under a lot of conditions. Now, since its permanent members have veto over the others, and therefore over any action, it seems that the Security Council is hostage to itself. Actions such as what the US threatens continuously to do in Syria question the authority and the very effectiveness of the UNSC. My question then is: Do you believe we should still maintain the UN Security Council, or should it be eliminated?

    • Dear Daniel,

      First of all apologies for my delay in getting back to you but I have been busy these days.

      The Security Council is in my opinion the indispensable element of the whole United Nations system. If it did not exist and if decisions of the United Nations were made by simple majority vote in the General Assembly then the Great Powers would eventually come to see the United Nations as a threat and challenge to themselves and would secede from it and would set out to undermine it. That is of course exactly the fate that overcame the United Nations’ predecessor, the League of Nations. By contrast creating a presiding body in the form of the Security Council which must operate by consensus of the Great Powers gives the Great Powers the assurance that their interests will be protected. It also ensures that when the Security Council does act it does so with the full force of a consensus of the Great Powers behind it. This is what gives the Security Council’s Resolutions their authority and power – the fact that they have the unanimous backing of the world’s most powerful countries.

      It is also the case that because what defines Great Powers as Great Powers is precisely their membership of the Security Council, membership of the Security Council gives the Great Powers a positive incentive to make the United Nations system work. It is a misconception that the Security Council is always riven by dispute and disagreement and is always paralysed. If you follow UN news closely what you will actually find is that on an every day basis the Security Council actually works quite well with frequent meetings and with the Great Powers normally able to agree with each other on most issues and with most of the work of the Security Council being uncontentious and therefore unreported. By the way this was true even during the Cold War. It is only when there is a major disagreement between the Great Powers as for example over Syria that the Security Council appears paralysed. However what is called “paralysis” is in that case simply a lack of consensus and as I explained previously the whole point of the veto system is to ensure that action is not taken when consensus does not exist.

      Of course it is true that the ability of the Security Council to coerce the Great Powers is limited. Had the US decided to attack Syria the Security Council could not have prevented it from doing so just as the Security Council could not prevent the US in 2003 from attacking Iraq. However the damage caused to the US’s international reputation by its attack on Iraq and the inability in the end of the US to attack Syria shows that ignoring the Security Council even for a country as powerful as the US is not a cost free option. Even in 1999 when the US was able to assemble an impressive coalition for its attack on Yugoslavia it found the absence of a Security Council Resolution authorising the attack in the end highly embarrassing so that it was eventually obliged to return to the Security Council for a Resolution which through Russian mediation brought that war to an end.

      I do not therefore agree with the suggestion that the Security Council should be abolished. I would add that the claim some people in the US are currently making – that the veto possessed by the permanent members of the Security Council is an invitation to behave irresponsibly by blocking Security Council action even when (as in a case of genocide) it is most needed – is quite simply wrong and indeed self serving nonsense. The United Nations system has a specific safeguard against such abuse of the veto in the form of the “Uniting for Peace” procedure that enables the United Nations General Assembly to authorise action by a simple majority vote if it judges it necessary and where the Security Council cannot agree. This procedure is very rarely invoked but it has been used in the past and could be again. If there really had been a genuine international consensus for military action against Syria at any time during the Syrian crisis the US would have invoked this procedure by calling for an extraordinary meeting of the General Assembly to authorise such military action. That the US has not done so is the surest sign possible that Russia and China are not and never have been isolated in the stand they have taken on the Syrian crisis and that an international consensus for military action against Syria does not exist.

      Lastly, there is the quite separate question of the reform of the Security Council’s membership. Two of the permanent members of the Security Council – Britain and France – cannot be considered Great Powers any more. Not only is their presence on the Security Council therefore unwarranted but given that one of the non permanent places on the Security Council is filled by another European state Britain’s and France’s continued presence on the Security Council leaves Europe (and the west) overrepresented. By contrast there is an unarguable case that India, which most definitely is a Great Power, and probably Brazil, should be made permanent members of the Security Council.

      Reform of the membership of the Security Council has been talked about for decades. The reason it has not happened is because of the predictable opposition of Britain and France and the pronounced lack of enthusiasm for it of the US. However lack of reform of the Security Council is not a reason for its abolition and I hope I have explained why I think that would be a bad idea.

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