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What Putin's Ukraine crisis proves about the dying United Nations

Biden’s trying to enforce rules on Russia that the U.S. has consistently broken.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden delivers an update on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border last week.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

The impending Ukraine crisis is not just about Ukraine. That has been the Biden administration’s message from the outset: Any Russian aggression against its southern neighbor is not only an unacceptable violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty but also an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to challenge the international rules-based order. “The stakes go far beyond Ukraine,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council last week. “This is a moment of peril for … the foundation of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order.”

The United States was systematically sidelining the U.N. long before Trump took the White House.

The Biden administration’s argument received an air of vindication Monday when Putin all but signaled his intent to invade Ukraine, prompting the White House on Tuesday to call Russia’s actions an “invasion.” Yet, despite its stated concern for the U.N. Charter and the rules-based international order, there is a conspicuous hole at the center of President Joe Biden’s Russia strategy.

Rather than upholding the current international order based on international law and the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the United States has itself systematically undermined the most central institutions of the current international system, all the while promoting its global primacy in the name of that very same rules-based order. Blinken admitted as much in an address to the U.N. last May: “I know that some of our actions in recent years have undermined the rules-based order and led others to question whether we are still committed to it.”

Blinken was, of course, referring to the actions of Donald Trump. But the United States was systematically sidelining the U.N. long before Trump took the White House. Neoconservatives and other hawks in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have long held that “American power, not the United Nations Security Council, provides peace and security for the rest of the world.” According to this logic, the United States should not allow the U.N., international treaties or norms to constrain American power. In fact, the thinking goes, America should actively break norms upheld by the United Nations to demonstrate to the world the hollowness of multilateral institutions and the near-omnipotence of American power.

The illegal invasion of Iraq provided such an opportunity. Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative, published an op-ed on the day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq celebrating the death of ''the fantasy of the U.N. as the foundation of a new world order.'' Perle went on to deem the idea of allowing only the U.N. Security Council to decide when international force is legitimate “dangerously wrong.” Instead, the United States assembled “a coalition of the willing” that acted outside — and in defiance of — any authorization by the U.N. Security Council.

The Trump administration further undermined the U.N. system, not only by threatening the staff of the International Criminal Court, pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council and defunding the U.N. Reliefs and Works Agency but by directly challenging multilateralism with America “going-it-alone.”

While Democratic administrations see far greater utility in the U.N. system, their policies have not reversed the trend sparked and reinforced by American unilateralism: the overall weakening of the United Nations and the office of the U.N. secretary-general to the point in which the U.N. has lost much of its ability to mediate an end to conflicts. As Blinken stated last week, the Ukraine crisis “is the exact kind of crisis that the United Nations — and specifically this Security Council — was created to prevent.”

While Democratic administrations see far greater utility in the U.N. system, their policies have not reversed the trend sparked and reinforced by American unilateralism.

But the days of the United Nations being the permanent address for diplomacy and the U.N. secretary-general the designated mediator for most major conflicts are long gone. Today, the secretary-general is not only missing in action, his absence is rarely noticed since few seem to expect the U.N. to play a mediating role to begin with.

The trend is clear according to research performed by my team at the Quincy Institute. During the first year of the war in Bosnia, reflecting the centrality of the U.N.’s role, the U.N. or the secretary-general were mentioned in 66.5 percent of the news reports in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Associated Press. When the United States nearly went to war with North Korea in 1994 over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, the same outlets mentioned the U.N. in 23.5 percent of its news reports. The crisis around East Timor’s struggle for independence in 1999 garnered mention of the United Nations in 46.1 percent of stories.

But after the 2003 Iraq war and the systematic efforts by the George W. Bush administration to render the U.N. irrelevant, the organization’s role in resolving international crises steadily declined. So when fighting began between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, the U.N. was mentioned in only 8 percent of the stories of these three flagship news outlets. And the three outlets mention the U.N. in their news coverage of the current Ukraine crisis a shocking 5 percent of the time.

None of this justifies Putin’s actions against Ukraine. On the contrary, just as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and the Obama administration’s regime-change war in Libya undermined the very rules-based order the United States claims it seeks to “defend, uphold and revitalize,” so, too, does Russia’s actions against the sovereignty of Ukraine.

The deliberate weakening of the United Nations has contributed to a more anarchic world that makes it more difficult for the United States to enforce rules on Russia that the U.S. itself consistently has broken. Rather than American primacy upholding the rules-based international order and providing strength to the U.N. — as New York Times columnist Brett Stephens claimed last week — it has hollowed it out and made it easier for other powers to disregard international laws and norms as well.

Though the Biden administration has been right in seeking to prevent war in Ukraine through diplomacy, it, too, has contributed to the erosion of the rules-based international order. While Biden officials speak of upholding this order, a well-placed U.N. source tells me that U.S. diplomats have told U.N. officials that Biden does not envision a U.N.-centric order.

This raises the question: Whose rules will Biden then be upholding if not those of the current international system embodied in the U.N. Charter? If Biden won’t act within the U.N., will he return to Bush’s ad-hoc coalitions of the willing? If so, he will only further aggravate the problem he professes to resolve.

Biden is right in seeking to prevent war in Ukraine. But the path in which he chooses to do so — by further eroding international law and norms through the reliance on American primacy or by leading by example by showing renewed respect for international law and the principles underpinning the U.N. Charter — will help determine whether there will be more or fewer Ukraines down the road.