Mary Dejevsky: The UN fiasco over Zimbabwe is a re-run of Iraq

There was the touching faith in the miracles that can be wrought by drafting
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No wonder a bit of an inquest is in progress. When Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, they pitched many weeks of painstaking British diplomatic planning straight into the fetid waters of the East River. And if anything could have been worse for the British government than defeat, it was that Gordon Brown and his ministers had clearly banked on victory.

Surprise-avoidance being one of the prime objectives of diplomacy, this was a signal failure. A cardinal rule – and not only at the UN, but in parliaments everywhere – is that that if you are not confident of getting your way, you do your utmost to prevent a vote. And if a vote really cannot be forestalled, then you reword the document to make it harmless. Ministers and diplomats can spend many happy hours, days and even months in such prophylactic procrastination. This is part of their job.

So it is understandable that the search is on for culprits, and that those in the immediate firing line are busy looking for other targets. The Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch-Brown – who, by the way, as a former deputy secretary general of the UN surely knows to the last dot and comma how the organisation works – extricated himself with particular ingenuity. The vote, he said, had exposed the real positions of Russia and China and was, therefore, not a bad outcome at all.

Now that the immediate shock of the vote has passed, two things have crystallised. The Government has – as it so often encourages the voters to do – "moved on", and is taking its argument for sanctions to the European Union, a body for which the Prime Minister, who famously refused to be photographed signing the Lisbon Treaty, appears suddenly to have found a use. And the blame has settled – as it so often does – on the Russians as the real villains of the piece.

According to this, their new President, Dmitry Medvedev, was all too pleased to tag along with the rich world when it censured Zimbabwe at last week's G8 summit, but when it came to the broader forum of the UN, then Moscow suddenly had other interests to consider. The Russians are therefore guilty at very least of changing their mind.

A more Machiavellian interpretation might be that they deliberately misled the British into believing that they would accept the imposition of sanctions, when, in fact, they were plotting to do the very opposite. There are several reasons why this rationalisation is unsatisfactory. The first is that, from the Russian perspective, signing up to the G8 condemnation and rejecting the UN resolution, are not actually incompatible positions. The second is that China, too, wielded its veto – and, given its interests in many African countries, including Zimbabwe, could hardly have been expected not to. But we don't want to get on the wrong side of China, do we?

Especially not on the eve of Beijing's showcase Olympics. And the third is that, in the matter of misreading the mood of the UN and its Security Council, Britain has rather distressing form.

Think back five years to the weeks before the invasion of Iraq and the frantic efforts applied by the British government to securing UN backing for the war. The warning resolution, 1441, was so expertly drafted – by Britain's then UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock – that it allowed both supporters and opponents of war to vote for it.

Squaring the circle, however, only postponed the inevitable split and made the failure of the crucial "second resolution" that much more painful for Britain when it came.

All the very same weaknesses that combined to frustrate the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe were there for all to see over Iraq. There was the touching faith in the miracles that can be wrought by drafting – a skill on which Britain's civil servants pride themselves, but which, if done too well, can come back to bite the author. There was the ill-tempered vilification of one country as the author of Britain's misfortune: five years ago, it was France. As coincidence would have it, there was also an almost identical misreading of how Russia would cast its vote.

Defeat at the UN on Zimbabwe sanctions is both less and more serious for Britain than the failure to agree on a "second resolution". It is less serious because sanctions are almost always of questionable effectiveness, and because the lack of the "second resolution" forced Tony Blair, fatefully, to choose between the UN and the US. But it is more serious because defeat last Friday broke what had been a promising international consensus on Zimbabwe and allowed an illegitimately elected President to exult in a victory over his old enemies. We had a chance to forge a common stance on democracy in Zimbabwe, and we failed – not because of Russian perfidy or the inadequacies of the UN, but because, once again, we did not appreciate how others see the world.