Photo: www.kremlin.Ru

Putin’s Plea

Why it’s easy to dismiss the Russian President —and why we shouldn’t.

This morning, buried in the back pages of The New York Times, readers found an op-ed contributed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the article, Putin cautions against a potential U.S. military approach to Syria and —peppering his appeal with the language of the Obama administration — affirms support for international law.

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep internationa lrelations from sliding into chaos,” Putin writes.

Putin’s appeal likely has two intended audiences.

The first, the American public, whose hesitation on action in Syria he wants Obama to heed. Public support for an appeal to the “universal international organization” (the United Nations), Putin suggests might avoid compromising the U.N. primary weapon: leverage. A lack of leverage, Putin argues, is what condemned the League of Nations to ultimate failure.

But the Charter of the League of Nations, an international institution championed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as an enterprise for moderating international peace and security, was rejected by the very government body now tasked with whether to greenlight military action in Syria —Congress. And Congress is certainly the second target of his appeal.

Despite Obama’s call for a pause in deliberations, Congress will play a defining role in the U.S. decision whether or not to address Syria with military action. Again, U.S. aggression without U.N. consent will jeopardize the international body that’s arguably preserved international peace and security for nearly 70 years, Putin writes.

It is easy to see Russia’s self-interest, of course. Relying on the Security Council gives Putin’s camp the ability to vote “no” on any resolution that permits the use of force. But an appeal to the “universal international organization” should also be seen as an opportunity to judge the willingness of the world to entangle itself in a sovereign state’s civil war.

Let’s be clear, though: leverage is a difficult quality to preserve. Surely, if debates in the U.N. Security Council conclude with silence and inaction, the institution will be seen —again— as impotent.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted “our collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria over the past two and a half years will remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations and its member states.”

That’s why true international engagement requires the use of all tools of the United Nations. As I’ve written previously in War is Boring, the Security Council need not be the land of last resort, action —if truly demanded by the international community— can be championed despite reservations by those with veto power.

But the tactic has significant costs and illustrates the disconnect between principles and performance in the United Nations.

For many, the U.N. is still viewed as a frustrating contradiction: a secretariat that preaches intervention and protection in all matters concerning human rights and security, while failing to act fast enough to fulfill the promises made. But recall, the U.N. was never intended as anything more than a voice of the world’s participating governments.

It’s not that all U.N. member states fail to appreciate the gravity of human rights violations, but that the calculus of politicizing human rights demands the kind of enlightened realpolitik rarely seen in meetings dominated by national interest and the desire for relative gains.

If, and this is a big if, some compact of U.N. member states decide to take a resolution on Syria to the floor of the General Assembly, it will likely be watered down, stonewalled, or quashed entirely. This is, like it or not, Putin’s point when he notes the aversion of many to military intervention in the Middle East (again). That aversion leads us to a soul-crushing —but not historically-surprising— reality: human suffering in Syria doesn’t matter enough to put national interests aside.

And for that we have only our respective governments —all of them— to blame.