Many Americans may be infuriated that Russia and China have signaled their readiness to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for intervention to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its brutal civil war.
According to U.N. rules, adopted in 1945 when the international organization was created, any of the five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France) of the Security Council may veto any resolution brought before the council, thus preventing any action the other members may favor.
Critics believe that the U.N. founders made a terrible mistake in granting that veto power, and perhaps they’re right. But it would be a serious mistake to think that the veto power doesn’t serve American interests as well as those of our adversaries.
Over the years, the American ambassador to the U.N. has frequently exercised the right to cast a veto. And many political scientists would argue that as frustrating as, say, a veto by Russian or Chinese may be on any particular resolution, from time to time the availability of the veto to the United States is vitally essential to American foreign policy.
The first United States veto came in 1970 and dealt with a major crisis in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The United Kingdom, of which Rhodesia was once a colony, vetoed seven Security Council resolutions on that subject. Two years later, the United States cast the only veto on a resolution that was critical of Israel.
In fact, since 1972 the United States has been by far the most frequent user of the veto and nearly all the vetoes involved resolutions that were contrary to Israel’s political interests. This created a great deal of friction between Washington and the U.N. General Assembly.
Two years ago, the Obama administration continued the policy of casting vetoes on resolutions condemning Israel, in this case involving the Israeli settlements that many, perhaps even most, Americans oppose.
From time to time, there have been serious debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the Security Council’s embrace of the veto.
Among the most discussed arguments is the belief, by some, that the five permanent members may no longer represent the most stable and responsible member states in the United Nations. After all, the world has changed dramatically since 1945, but membership on the Security Council remains as it was then. Critics argue that the Security Council members’ veto power can actually prevent the adoption of important steps affecting delicate matters of international peace and security, matters that are, after all, the very reason the U.N. was created in the first place.
Although the five permanent members may still qualify for the designation “great powers” there is almost constant debate over their exclusive veto power.
Also, critics argue that the veto power sometimes impedes balanced political decisions because any draft resolution must first be approved of by each permanent member before it can be adopted. Several such proposed draft resolutions were never formally presented to the council for a vote because it was known beforehand that at least one permanent member would exercise its veto power.
Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, suggested (in a recent letter to The New York Times) that in this case the Security Council should refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, “which is competent to penalize crimes against humanity.” What he didn’t say, however, is how the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, could be forced to face that court.
Still, the U.N., for its faults and machinations, does provide a useful if imperfect global platform for maintaining peaceful relations and providing humanitarian aid, as world leaders envisioned when it was formed at the end of World War II.
The United States should never allow its involvement to diminish its security or sovereignty, but the United Nations, vetoes and all, does serve a valuable purpose.