Russian President Vladimir Putin’s breach of the peace in invading Ukraine is scandalous. But rather than illustrating the importance of a “rules-based international order” that only despots violate and populists threaten — as many pundits and administration officials are now suggesting — the invasion is another reminder of the need to build a better order. As much as any individual or nation is to blame for specific instances of international violence, the existing system reflects a hypocritical commitment to allow a great power war while claiming to prohibit it.
When the United Nations was formed in 1945, its charter made most uses of force illegal, aside from those authorized by the body’s Security Council “to maintain or restore international peace and security” and those undertaken in self-defense. The “suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace” was proclaimed as one of the organization’s founding purposes. Such rhetoric made sense to the survivors of two world wars.
The rub was that the charter was fatally inconsistent in its antiwar stance: It granted to the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, the Soviet Union (later succeeded by Russia), China, France and Britain — a veto over any resolution identifying an aggressor, or authorizing coercive (including military) responses. The veto meant from the start that some of the most powerful states, including Russia, could never bear the scarlet letter of aggressor in the international system.
Of course, had Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin not agreed at Yalta that their states could veto anything they didn’t like, there might have been no U.N. Charter in the first place. But it’s inevitable that states with a veto will use it to protect themselves and their allies from consequences. And this has been borne out in practice. There have been more than more than 250 great power vetoes since. They should be seen as not a bug but a feature of our international order.
Read the full article in The Washington Post.