The Irreconcilable Paradox of Calls to Strike Syria
When Barack Obama announced his determination to strike the Syrian government after it allegedly deployed chemical weapons against civilians, he explained his rationale. “Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning,” he said. “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”
The tragic irony is that the U.S. violated a cornerstone of international law at that very moment in the White House Rose Garden. Article two of the United Nations charter not only bars member states from using force, except in self-defense or in conjunction with the international community, it also prohibits states from threatening to use force. Under the charter, it’s the only international norm that countries are empowered to enforce unilaterally.
This is the central paradox of Obama’s promise that he will intervene in Syria without international support if he must.
Obama, and other advocates of a punitive strike against Bashar al-Assad, argue that it is necessary to enforce an important, 80-year-old international norm against using chemical weapons on civilians. By upholding the norm, you deter future uses of these ghastly weapons to slaughter civilians.
But without broad international support, that argument runs headlong into another norm, one that has had far more impact in creating a less chaotic world than the chemical weapons ban: the norm toward multilateral security.
As uneven as the process has been, the development of international laws and norms - and new institutions to enforce them — has represented a revolution in world politics that’s contributed to a remarkable, and largely uncelebrated reduction in global violence. Century Foundation fellow Michael Cohen made the liberal case for intervening in Syria on exactly these grounds, writing that “for such laws and norms to have any validity they occasionally need to be enforced.”
But the United States can’t enforce international laws and global norms without the “international” part. “Without question, the norm toward multilateral action has meant more in terms of reducing the horrors of war than the norm against chemical weapons,” says University of San Francisco historian Christopher O’Sullivan, author of The United Nations. O’Sullivan points out that between 1914 and 1945, somewhere between 75 and 100 million people perished in wars “started by countries pursuing their own narrow, national interests.” While it hasn’t been a perfect world, in the 60 years since the U.N. was created only a fraction of that number — approximately 35 million people — have been killed in wars, mostly civil wars. “This has been a much, much more manageable system than what preceded it: a world of complete anarchy where countries pursued their interests at the expense of their neighbors,” says O’Sullivan.