Unreal diplomacy at the UN

The vote on Libya

New York suffered a tediously long winter this year, but for a few weeks in March there was an unusual sense of spring-like renewal at the United Nations. The UN’s critics were caught off-guard by the Security Council’s repeated efforts to rein in Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and its authorisation of “all necessary means” to stop indiscriminate killings in Côte d’Ivoire.  Even Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, normally a paragon of caution, was invigorated and spoke out in favor of the Arab protest movements.

Today, after several weeks of NATO air operations over Libya, the “Multilateralist Spring” feels awfully long ago. Diplomatic fissures have opened up over the legitimacy and goals of NATO’s actions, with non-Western powers including India demanding the West back down. UN officials argue that, if the Libyan war ends relatively soon, the previous spirit of cooperation will return. But as nobody knows (at least at the time of writing) when the war will end, it is necessary to ask what’s gone wrong so far.

The Security Council’s initial activism was encouraging because it rested on a hard-headed diplomatic deal between Western powers and traditional critics of intervention including not only China and Russia, but also India, Brazil and South Africa, all currently on the Security Council. The United States and its allies united with the BRICS to pass the first resolution demanding Colonel Gaddafi back down. The Obama administration then made a point of gaining Council authorisation to use force in Libya—and New Delhi joined Moscow, Beijing and Brasilia in returning the favour by abstaining rather than rejecting Resolution 1973.

Some US policy wonks felt that India’s abstention was a poor recompense for President Obama’s decision to support a permanent Indian seat on the Security Council last year.  But the administration recognised that, like China, India could not be expected to embrace Resolution 1973’s extremely broad mandate for military action outright. In this case, an Indian abstention was good enough (there was much less sympathy in Washington for another abstainer, Germany, who showed up NATO’s splits).

Image: G23 Armstrong

Although non-Western powers raised questions about NATO’s tactics from early on, the fact that BRICS backed a forceful resolution to the Ivorian crisis restored the general bonhomie in the UN. The ability of French and UN forces to bring the Ivorian crisis to a close (or at least get it out of the headlines) in a few days helped a good deal. If Abidjan had turned into a quagmire, the mood could have soured fast.


That is what has happened in Libya. As Colonel Gaddafi has defied expectations that his regime would collapse in days or weeks, the BRICS, with India often to the fore, have become persistent critics of NATO’s campaign. It is possible that this year’s experiments in interventionism may do the organisation lasting harm, strengthening those who argue that humanitarianism acts as a cover for Western political plots.

If this is the case, it will be a pity not only for the UN as a forum, but for those powers—not least the United States and India—that see it as a tool for improving big power relations in the multi-polar environment.

India’s interest in using the UN as mechanism for boosting its relations with the United States was underlined in one of the Wikileaks cables recounting a 2009 meeting between the two countries ambassadors in New York, Hardeep Singh Puri and Susan E Rice. Mr Puri reportedly told his counterpart that “his clear instructions from New Delhi regarding his posting in New York were to seek a greater degree of convergence with the United States.” There have been signs of this convergence underway in areas such as peacekeeping policy, and Mr Puri has also looked to work better with the Europeans.

India’s initial positions on Libya and its full support for force in Côte d’Ivoire were arguably further steps towards shifting the UN from its time-honoured “North vs South” and “NATO vs NAM” divisions.

Had Colonel Gaddafi crumpled faster, this would have been thoroughly validated. As it is, all the members of the Security Council, Western and non-Western alike, have had to face the reality that they did not have viable diplomatic strategies for the “long haul” in Libya. NATO’s members, including the United States, have looked increasingly nervous about sustaining the air campaign (let alone any sort of ground operation).

India and the other BRICS, meanwhile, have called repeatedly for a negotiated settlement in spite all evidence that Colonel Gaddafi is pathologically untrustworthy.    There is nothing wrong with looking for a peaceful solution, and ultimately a pretty ugly deal may be required in Libya, but India and the other BRICS have not been able to point to mechanism for achieving this goal. South Africa did try to play an active part—President Jacob Zuma even went to Tripoli—but came up with a plan the rebels couldn’t accept.

There is something unreal about the postures of both sides in this debate. The United States, France and Britain unleashed the NATO air campaign insisting that it was not about regime change. Yet it was always clear that regime change was almost certainly the only way to end this war in a way that the West could accept. Conversely, the BRICS have been stout defenders of a diplomatic solution when it is clear that—without a significant change in the balance of forces—the conditions for a lasting deal do not exist.

The undeniable success of finding a diplomatic modus vivendi over Libya arguably obscured the fact that neither the Bombers nor the Talkers had a viable strategic vision of what to do if Colonel Gaddafi held out for months on end. It is possible—indeed probable—that he will eventually fall under the pressure of economic sanctions. Yet damage has already been done to the great powers’ relations at the United Nations.

The lesson here is simple enough. If India wants to see its policies “converge” with those of the United States and other potential allies (whether from the BRICS or NATO) at the UN, even the highest-class diplomacy will not suffice. Instead, there will need to be a deeper convergence on how to identify common strategic interests and when it is permissible to use force.

The Security Council is the final chamber in which such issues are discussed in periods of crisis—it is not the back room in which deep agreements are forged.