Blame and Its Consequences, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Oct

Over many years, I have been literally captivated by hundreds of Security Council meetings.   Even as more and more are available via webcast, the chamber itself remains endlessly interesting.   The body language of presenters; the degree to which diplomats are (or are not) actually paying attention to each other; the odd protocols such as inviting diplomats of states on the Council agenda to sit through votes or statements without allowing them to utter a word in support (or protest) of Council decisions; the ‘personalities’ of Council members, from the stoic pragmatism of the Chinese and mandate-fundamentalism of the Russian Federation to the thoughtfulness of current members such as Argentina and Rwanda, and the ‘moral’ stances so often enumerated by the P-3.

No one who sits in these meetings, day after day, can be confused about at least one facet of their underlying purpose.    Though the audience may be meager, these meetings represent opportunities for states to lobby their peers and the court of public opinion.  Given the branding opportunity for states (as in much of the UN as a whole), there are things you almost never hear: regrets over failed actions and/or policies; apologies to those victimized by bad decisions or for not living up to obligations to the International Criminal Court, Troop Contributing Countries, or other sectors of the organization; acknowledgment of valid points raised by political adversaries; and clear and humble explanations of why policies that seemed to some to be so right at the time (ie. Libya bombings, the re-hatting of CAR peacekeepers) have fallen far short of expectations and may have even triggered more of the violence they were designed to prevent.

The point of this post is not to bash the Council which already gets plenty of criticism from many quarters; none of which, so far as I can tell, has much potential to meaningfully divert Council energies or make members take on tasks they are reluctant to accept.

The point is rather that, in some ironic sense, the branding efforts by these powerful Council members also does not seem to have much power to persuade.  People and states that follow Council meetings on a regular basis remain skeptical of motives and strategies as much as convinced.   With all due respect to the multiple challenges on the Council’s agenda, it is apparent that there is precious little ‘maintaining of peace and security’ at present.  Instead, the Council bounces from one crisis to the next, usually too late in the game to maintain much of anything, and certainly to prevent the crises that are both ruining millions of lives and cluttering up its agenda.  I know this is frustrating to at least some of the Council members.  It is frustrating to watch as well.

It seems as though Council members’ often clumsy efforts to garner public support, whether for Russia’s Crimean adventure, the US’s ISIS bombing campaign, or other policy decisions of Council members are falling more and more on deaf ears.   One primary reason for this seems obvious.  What the global public longs to see (and is frankly losing hope in seeing) is Council members displaying less national branding and more introspection; less political posturing and more sober reflection on how we got to the point of so many insurgencies and refugees worldwide; more about the ways in which the UN is still relevant to the resolution of these crises; and much more regarding changes that need to be (and hopefully will be) made to ensure that the Council can live up to its Charter mandate and not simply reaffirm its privilege to cope with security challenges at its own discretion.

One of the ironies of the recent Council discussions on Ukraine and especially on the Middle East was the number of states urging an end to ‘finger pointing’ and then immediately setting out to point fingers.  At no point in these ‘analyses’ of current situations did any state admit to any responsibility for any part of the dangerous tensions on the Council’s agenda.   The crisis in Syria is solely about ISIS and Assad.   The crisis in Gaza is all about the actions of terrorists (with perhaps a bit of Israeli overstretch). The crisis in Ukraine is all about Russians pouring across still—insufficiently monitored borders.  And on it goes.  Localizing the blame more than sharing the responsibility.

Are these causal factors at all relevant?  Of course they are.  Is the list comprehensive?  Of course it isn’t.   Why is this deliberate limitation of causality not, at least once in a while, part of the conversation? It should not be such a rare and remarkable occurrence for a Council member to acknowledge that they, individually and collectively, had misread the policy ‘tea leaves,’ and thus had compromised one or more member states, either through politicized policymaking or through an unwillingness to engage a crisis at an earlier, more manageable stage.

It dismays many onlookers that a Council which jealously guards its prerogatives in the peace and security area is so very reluctant to accept public responsibility for the many situations in which their actions fail to deliver peace.   The unwillingness to publicly acknowledge these shortcomings actually constitutes a disservice to the most responsible Council members, threatens the credibility of the UN system, and insults both analysts and victims who know that things rarely are as they are described in these meetings.

The Council still rightly maintains the respect of UN members and much of the global public.   But this cannot be taken for granted.  The finger pointing and political blaming that seem by default to fill in gaps in what are often well-crafted and even well-meaning policy statements must give way to a more thoughtful engagement with both the origins and consequences of crisis.

We fully acknowledge the immense degrees of difficulty that accompany the pursuit of consensus policy to address a myriad of ugly challenges around the world.   We also understand that many of these challenges – Libya, Mali, Syria, Central African Republic — are barely, if at all, under any effective control at present.  What we need to see from Council members (what we should also require of ourselves in our own policy contexts) is more thoughtfulness about strengths and limitations, less pointing of fingers at others,  more candid admissions of the ways in which Council members (and the rest of us as well) have contributed to the states and structures burning around us.

The great US theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that ‘the evils against which we contend are the fruits of illusions similar to our own.’  At a moment of agony for millions, illusions are indulgences we just cannot afford.  A more publicly thoughtful Council, a Council defined by pragmatic, cooperative problem solving, a Council willing to “hold the mirror” inwardly as well as outwardly, would do much to maintain public confidence along the now-epic, arduous path towards a sustainable peace.

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One Response to “Blame and Its Consequences, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Sulekha Prasad October 28, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    Great peace Bob! Honest and thoughtful as always.

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