Britain’s problems with a veto on Syria go right back to Yalta

It was then that the 'big five' were granted such power

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America’s Amazons at the UN have a habit of talking tough. Jean (Security Council actions are a “mugging”) Kirkpatrick, and Madeleine (the price of 500,000 dead Iraqi children “is worth it”) Albright, always packed a punch.  And now we have Obama’s latest Boudicea, Susan Rice, pitching into George W. Bush’s old nemesis, the United Nations.

Where Bush threatened the UN with the irrelevance of the old League of Nations – without realising that the US had fatally weakened the League by refusing to join it – Rice has been condemning the UN Security Council’s inaction on Syria as “a moral and strategic disgrace”, without appreciating that it was Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt who insisted on the future UN’s veto powers during the great Allied World War II conference at Yalta.

The UN donkey is fed few carrots and beaten with many sticks, but there’s a growing habit of blaming the animal’s inherent weakness on the veto, which allows any permanent member to destroy the proposals of anyone else.  Hence Russia’s veto over US and EU military action in Syria has somehow turned the veto itself into a Russian invention.  Of course, Madame Rice’s outrage did not include any mention of the ‘moral and strategic disgrace’ of America’s 41 vetoes at the Security Council to ‘protect’ Israel and allow it to continue its occupation, land theft and colonisation of the Palestinian West Bank.  Nope, it’s all about Syria – and those Russkies are to blame.

Now years ago, in Beirut, I picked up a battered, second-hand 1950 edition of Robert E. Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins:  an intimate history and – only now that I’ve had it leather-bound by my favourite Lebanese book-binder – have I read it all, through the night, at one ‘go’, and what a cracker it is.  Sherwood, who was the president’s speechwriter in World War II, used the private papers of Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s chief diplomatic advisor, to provide what remains one of the best accounts of the Big Three summit at Yalta, when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to decide the future of the post-war world.

Today, we think of Yalta as the final sell-out of Poland’s independence to Stalin (Churchill had in fact already done this most dishonourable deal in Moscow) but in January 1945, Hitler’s armies were still fighting and the UN still existed only on paper.  And it was the future UN, the voting powers of the Soviet Union and the veto in the proposed Security Council – the US, the UK, Russia and China (France was an afterthought) – which occupied an important part of the summit.  And Churchill, the essential imperialist, was all for the power of veto at the Security Council. 

“Indeed,” Sherwood writes, “the British had been heartily in favour of the veto as a means of preventing any encroachments on their own imperial interests.  The United States had favoured it as a form of insurance against the commitment of the United Nations (Security) Council of American forces to action in all sorts of possible wars in all parts of the world.”  In other words, Churchill did not want the UN sending military missions to India or other British ‘possessions’, while Roosevelt didn’t want US forces involved in unpopular – or unwinnable – wars on someone else’s behalf.

Roosevelt had “the memory of Woodrow Wilson always alive in him,” Sherwood wrote, which suggests that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did not when it came to Vietnam.  The ‘concession’ to the Russians was a veto by any member of the Security Council against a proposal of sanctions – or even war – against that same member.  In other words, one of the big five could veto a proposal by the others to invade it – and, by extension, its friends or allies.  This is precisely the policy Putin has applied to Syria.  The Russians accepted that no member of the Council could prevent debate about its own actions.   

Stalin was much more interested in obtaining UN General Assembly votes for Ukraine and Byelorussia – both constituent nations within the Soviet Union;  these two countries, Stalin had archly reminded Roosevelt, were greater in population and importance than other nations which would be represented at the UN.  Roosevelt went waffling on about Brazil, because it was smaller than the USSR but larger than the United States.  Stalin, Sherwood remarked, “began to betray signs of impatience and irritability”, so Hopkins scribbled a hasty note to Roosevelt:  “Mr President, I think you should try to get this referred to Foreign ministers before there is trouble.  Harry.”

Churchill rather smugly pointed out to Stalin and Roosevelt that Britain’s UN veto would also protect its claims to Hong Kong, to which Stalin cunningly replied:  “Suppose that Egypt should raise the question of the return of the Suez Canal?”  Three years after Stalin’s death, of course, Egypt did just that.  On his way back from Yalta, Churchill met the new Syrian president, Shukri Quwatli, who wanted independence from France.  The Syrians and the Lebanese, thought Churchill, would “be ready to fight before conceding” a privileged position for France.  Now Britain — as well as France – talk of military action in Syria.  But they’ve got the results of Yalta to contend with.

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