The philosopher and poet George Santayana warned famously that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” President Obama’s speech to the United Nations of September 24th radiates an alarming cluelessness about the lessons of history and how his feckless foreign policy has made the problems he describes significantly worse.
The myth of multilateralism with the United Nations as the arbiter of legitimacy pervades the president’s conception of the world’s most pressing problems and the best practicable remedy for them. President Obama called on “the nations here today to renew the purposes of the UN’s” founding, replacing the rule of force with the rule of law where “all of us – big nations and small — must meet our responsibility to meet international norms.”
Yet no collective security organization has ever served as a prudent substitute for American power, resolve, and U.S.-led coalitions assembled to fit the mission, rather than held hostage to the lowest common denominator of a flaccid consensus. On the contrary, gridlock inheres in the logic and structure of the United Nations. The founders of the UN created a security council of five permanent members (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Russia, Great Britain, and France), plus a rotating pool of permanent members. Each of the five permanent members wields a veto, effectively thwarting any Security Council action any one opposes.
President Obama’s UN speech perpetuates the illusion that all major powers typically will respond automatically, vigorously, and collectively to major acts of aggression. Yet effective collective security rarely occurs in the annals of international politics. Not all states define threats or interests the same way. Nor are all prepared to expend significant effort or run major risks even when — atypically — the major powers agree on which state constitutes the prime aggressor.
During the Cold War, the UN Security Council deadlocked on virtually all major conflicts, with the Korean War of 1950-53 being an exception that proves the rule. The Truman Administration succeeded in obtaining the imprimatur of the UN security council for resisting North Korean aggression against South Korea only because the Soviet Union was boycotting for its refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China rather than the Republic of China on the Island of Taiwan. Hopes for UN collective security soared in the aftermath of the Cold War when the Security Council voted unanimously in November 1990 to authorize the use of force to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Even without the Soviet-American impasse, however, the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was another exception that proved the rule of the UN’s impotence to deal with great power conflicts. Iraq had committed a brazen act of aggression against a sovereign state. The impending disintegration of the Soviet Union and the international fallout from the Chinese Massacre of students at Tiananmen Square gave the leaders of both countries more incentive to retain American goodwill than usual. So neither nation vetoed UN action. Nor did the French — still apprehensive about German unification and thus not wishing to alienate the United States as routinely as usual.
Such a felicitous convergence of circumstances rarely occurs in international politics. Since the Gulf War, the UN has reverted to inaction as the norm, with Obama’s “leading from behind” in Libya leaving the country in shambles and appearing more like a failure. The UN failed miserably to stop the slaughter of Muslims in the constituent parts into which Yugoslavia disintegrated during the 1990’s. The UN failed likewise to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, mass killing in Sudan, Saddam Hussein’s violations of 17 UN resolutions, the ferocious and expanding Syrian Civil War, the rampages of ISIS, Iran’s nuclear program, Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine, or China’s brazen and illegal assertion of sovereignty in the seas of East Asia.
Nor will collective action as Obama envisages it — “without American combat troops” — suffice to defeat ISIS, thwart Putin from achieving his imperial ambitions, convince a revolutionary Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or effectively deter an expansionist China from dominating East Asia, the world’s most important geopolitical region in the 21st century. Vindicating the national interest will require clear, credible commitments to democratic allies that Obama’s assault on the defense budget and penchant for conciliating adversaries and pressuring democratic friends has eviscerated.
Obama’s address to the UN also shows his obliviousness to how his own policies enabled the aggression he now deplores. His ill-conceived reset with Russia demoralized America’s Eastern European allies and emboldened Putin in Ukraine and beyond. Obama’s weak, belated, and conditional sanctions and refusal to arm the legitimate Ukrainian government have encouraged Putin to dismiss the president’s multiple warnings about the consequences of Russian aggression as rhetorical rather than real. The president’s premature withdrawal from Iraq plunged the country into the chaos that ISIS has exploited diabolically. Obama’s conciliation of Islamic extremists, from the Mullahs in Tehran to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, have fanned the flames of sectarian war he now identifies as a grave danger.
Obama’s obsession with shrinking the American military in general and the Navy in particular has American allies in East Asia trembling in fear that an expansionist China embarking on a comprehensive military buildup will dominate the region, to their detriment and ours.
The president’s speech at UN marinates in his perilous propensity for substituting soaring rhetoric for concrete action, while evading responsibility for the proliferating dangers his policies have unleashed. The United States and democratic allies should rue Obama’s UN speech for doubling-down on his worst instincts rather than summoning the better angels of his nature.