Sanctions, embargoes, and threats, oh my!

Though recently ineffective, the multilateral approach that the U.N. takes still has a niche on the international stage.

By David Grossman

Coming out of a government shutdown, Americans have witnessed firsthand the frustration often associated with giving the minority party too much veto power. Now, imagine the minority could veto any bill without the possibility of being overridden by a super-majority, was elected for “forever,” and seemed to constantly disagree with facts agreed upon by virtually everyone else.

Wouldn’t that suck?

It does. In fact, the United Nations’ difficulty with this power structure has cast doubt on whether real global change can be accomplished with the uniform consent of so many nations, all of whom have competing interests. The Security Council—the epicenter of all real power, including sanctions, treaty enforcement, and military force—is composed of five permanent members (China, United Kingtom, France, Russia, and the United States) and 10 non-permanent members. The absolute veto power of the permanent members has, for a long time, prevented international action that would likely be beneficial from a global standpoint, but not necessarily in the geo-political interest of every member state. Specifically, China and Russia have consistently vetoed the United States’ motions to impose sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and condemn Bashar al-Assad of Syria’s war crimes.

This level of intransigence has shaken much of the world’s confidence in the U.N., a body which has become little more than a forum for two types of people: dictators who, in order to quell uprisings, appeal to the ideal of international diplomacy, and leaders who want to justify bombing stuff (usually us).

Effective or not, a temporary seat on the Security Council has been a coveted asset since the U.N.’s charter was first drawn—until now.

Last Friday, Saudi Arabia became the first country to reject this opportunity. In a Saudi-backed newspaper, columnist Hussein Shobokshi summed up their reasoning succinctly, writing that “rejection is better than capitulation.”

While everyone was focusing on the United States’ inability to break the international diplomatic impasse about Syria, the Saudis were actively supporting the Sunni Syrian rebels against Shiite Iran’s ally, President Assad. The former U.N. Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold explained that Assad’s surrender of his chemical weapons allowed him to remain in power in spite of the entire Saudi strategy in Syria over the past two years. The link to Saudi and U.S. interests is that Syria is the greatest ally of Iran, whose nuclear program poses a massive regional and international threat; to say that the Saudis are upset with the way the Syrian conflict is playing out would be a massive understatement.

It appears that the days of international cooperation observed after the World Wars are over, and replaced by unilateral political and military action. The current Syrian resolution is proof of that; after months of the U.N. taking no action on Syria, a breakthrough was made only when President Obama went on national television and explained in an old-fashioned display of brinkmanship that “I’m a peaceful fellow who doesn’t want to bomb anyone, but here’s who I’m about to bomb and here’s why we have to bomb them.” After Obama’s statement, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that while Assad could turn over all of his chemical weapons, “he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” to which Assad replied, “Challenge Accepted.” Long story short, bombing averted.

It’s frightening to think that true international actions can be achieved only through threat of military force. I’ll willingly be the biased citizen who proffers the consolation that at least it’s the United States with the military power and, well, better us than someone else. But a day might come when Iran develops nuclear weapons and gives them to a well funded and operationally competent terrorist group that will, in turn, threaten a nuclear strike to extract a very real concession from one of the U.S.’s allies in the Middle East. Still, there’s hope. While the U.N. is often too rigidly multilateral to find a solution acceptable to everyone, some goals simply cannot be achieved alone—whether by the U.S. or some other powerful entity.

Case in point: The international sanctions on Iran appear to finally be having some effect. Although sanctions have been derided as blunt instruments that destroy a country’s economy to the detriment of only the poor and not the targeted rich, blunt instruments can still be effective if wielded with enough force. In the last eight years, Iran has experienced what can only be described as an economic shutdown: its oil exports have been cut in half, its currency has depreciated to a third of its former value, and by some assessments, Iran’s government has lost the ability to borrow internationally and is running dangerously low on funds.

The international pressure on Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, to save the economy by finding a way to lift the sanctions before Iran goes bankrupt is enormous. Where threats of forceful unilateral action such as first-strikes by Israel have failed, the passive excising of Iran from the global economy has finally created sufficient incentive for President Rouhani to reconsider his nuclear program. Iran has recently made multiple abrupt shifts on their public message about their nuclear program  as part of ongoing negotiations. Nothing is concrete yet, but given Iran’s dire economic situation made possible by the solidarity of the global community, I’m optimistic that the Middle East question of nuclear armament can be resolved through U.N. efforts in lieu of drastic military action.

David Grossman is a first-year in the College.