Post-Communist Russia has repeatedly said that it bases its foreign policy on respect for the UN Charter. This is understandable. For the Soviet Union, the ability to veto Security Council resolutions was irrelevant, because it had real power to stop the United States doing things it disliked. Today, the veto gives Russia at least the appearance of having more power than it has in the real world.
Unfortunately for Russia American foreign policy is not based on the UN Charter. On two recent occasions, over Kosovo and Iraq, it has made war without even seeking UN authorisation, because it knew that Russia and, in the case of Iraq, France and China as well, would have vetoed the action. Only the United States is in a position to get away with this. It now interprets the inherent right of self-defence allowed by the Charter to mean its right to attack any country in the world which it deems might become a threat to its security. This is equivalent to telling the Security Council to pack up and go home.
Where does this leave Russian foreign policy and, more generally, international relations? There are basically three options. First, Russia could join America in what President Bush has called ‘a coalition of the willing’, and which others see as a new American imperialism. At present, Britain is the only other important member of this coalition. Russia could become a third. America and Russia share a strong common interest in fighting Islamicist terrorism. Had Russia provided troops for the Iraq war, it would have re-established itself, as Britain has done, in the Middle East. But at present Russia has neither the military nor administrative capacity for taking part in joint operations of this kind.
A second option for Russia would be to join Europe, China, and possibly India in building up a counter-coalition to restrain American power. This is the goal of France’s President Chirac. Russia and China have occasionally talked in this way. In time a multi-polar world will surely re-emerge. But it is two or three decades away.
If Russia is serious about basing its security policy on the UN its most promising course would be to throw its weight behind Kofi Annan’s current effort to put UN reform on the agenda. This starts from the presumption that there is no alternative to rule-based international cooperation. Unilateral pre-emption, Annan said, is wrong: America cannot arrogate itself the right of unilateral action which it denies others. At the same time ‘the international security architecture must be able to adapt to the needs of the time’. So the Security Council should work out ‘criteria for an early authorisation of coercive means’ to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction – not just in ‘rogue’ states like Iraq but in ‘failed’ states (mostly in Africa) where the breakdown of central authority provides an ideal sanctuary for terrorist groups.
Interestingly, Annan proposed to revive the Trusteeship Council, successor of the old League of Nations Mandate Council. This could conceivably provide a mechanism for restructuring the governments and –in conjunction with the World Bank – investing in the economies of ‘failed’ states.
Annan’s latest announcements showed that he has moved away from his earlier concentration on widening the membership of the Security Council to make it more representative. This would not address the problem of America and Iraq. Right now membership issues are secondary. The urgent need is to get international agreement on the legitimate grounds –and limits –of coercive intervention in the domestic affairs of states. This should be attempted before the Security Council is enlarged.
For an ex-superpower like Russia which is no longer in a position to promulgate Brezhnev Doctrines this is the surest way to guarantee its own national security.