Thought Leadership

The Western Fiasco
The Western Fiasco in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine

By DC Ambassador Jamal Qaiser

In all three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine – doom has set in due to the clash of geopolitical power blocs. And in all three countries, proxy wars have led the population to disaster. Therefore, in a book about the failure of the West in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, the decades-long failure of the international community of states far beyond these three countries in all attempts to bring peace to the world deserves mention  at the very beginning.

Peoples' right to peace

The idea of a peaceful community of states is not new. The term "international law" was first mentioned in 1625 in the book "On the Law of War and Peace" by the Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius. In 1795, the philosopher Immanuel Kant advanced the idea of a "consistently peaceful community of peoples" in his philosophical essay "Project for a perpetual peace." The Enlightenment brought about  the first international peace movement in the 19th century, which led to the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907.

The aim was to develop principles for the peaceful settlement of international conflicts. The idea behind it is great: the abolition of war as a means of dispute between peoples and instead the establishment of a legal process to resolve conflicts. It did not work back then, the League of Nations founded after WW I failed, and with around twenty wars  a year today, it is difficult to argue that the UN has been more successful. But, despite all the criticism, one should pause for a moment to appreciate the greatness of the idea of legal process replacing war, which was the aim of all these efforts.

At the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899, twenty-six states met, and at the second conference in 1907, forty-four countries  came together to work out an international legal order. It was agreed to set up a court of arbitration in The Hague, but they were not able to establish any binding force for the court rulings of the newly created institution. As early as then, the core question became clear: how much sovereignty do states want to relinquish to submit to a kind of "supranational world order"? The possibilities of enforcing court judgements have already also been discussed, i.e. the question of an international executive arm, as represented by the UN's "Blue Helmets" today.

At that time, the binding force was to be determined at a third peace conference, initially planned for 1914 and then 1915, and was institutionalised in the League of Nations as collective security. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is now part of the UN, is the highest judicial organ and is decisively based on the work of the Hague Peace Conferences.

Failure of the League of Nations

The idea of creating a worldwide organisation that would serve as a neutral platform for understanding between states was revived after the First World War. To this end, the victorious powers convened the Paris Peace Conference, at which the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and the founding of the League of Nations was decided.

It is difficult to deny that the Versailles Peace Treaty made a significant contribution, at least in argumentation, to the rise of Hitler and thus to the outbreak of the Second World War. Even then, simple lines of argument were lacking: The Versailles Treaty unduly subjugated Germany and the population suffered. Nevertheless, we not only tolerated this but defended ourselves – this is how the popular sentiment against the Treaty of Versailles in Germany at the time can be summarised.

These are the facts: Germany had to cede Alsace-Lorraine to France and Poznán and West Prussia to Poland, the Memel Territory came under French control, the Hlučín Region went to the newly recreated Czechoslovakia (which much later split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), the Saar Basin, Danzig and the German colonies were subordinated to the League of Nations.

On the one hand, these comprehensive measures were apparently not enough to keep Germany permanently small, but, on the other hand, they gave the National Socialists substantial arguments to defend themselves against what they called the "imposed peace." The French Marshal Ferdinand Foch provided an excellent analysis of the Versailles Treaty: "This is not peace. This is a 20-year truce. "

It was already evident then – as it was later with the founding of the United Nations – that the formation of an alliance of states after a world war in which there are winners and losers has a fundamental flaw: the winners dictate the conditions. This problem continued when the United Nations was founded as the successor organisation to the League of Nations. In very simplified terms, the UN consists of the Security Council as a reflection of the balance of power at the time, a flexible, military reaction force under the leadership of the Security Council, a group of sub-organisations for practically all subject areas of humanity, an all-encompassing network of aid organisations and a gigantic bureaucracy built around it.

Back to the League of Nations: As a result of the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War and based on the "14-Points" put forward by US President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, based in Geneva, began its work on 10 January 1920. The objective at that time was just as lofty as it was later at the UN: lasting peace through a system of collective security, international disarmament and the settlement of possible disputes between states through an arbitration tribunal.

In contrast to the UN, the Constitution of the League of Nations provided for an obligation of all member states to provide military aid "immediately and directly" in the event of a military attack by a country against a member state. True to the principle of "nip it in the bud," this was intended to prevent delays caused by consultation in committees. In an emergency, however, none of the member states adhered to this requirement but operated at their own discretion. Consequently, when the UN was later founded, this obligation was rescinded, apart from resolutions by the UN Security Council. The opinion prevailed that it is better to make non-binding declarations than binding ones that are not implemented.

With the outbreak of World War II, the failure of the League of Nations was sealed. On 18 April 1946, the thirty-four remaining member states decided to disband the League of Nations with immediate effect. But the idea persisted. While the Second World War was still raging, the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill revived the idea of a world organisation to ensure peace, which shortly after the war led to the founding of the United Nations Organisation.

However, Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945 after a long and serious illness and was no longer able to see the founding of the UN on 24 October 1945.

The beginnings of the UN

"Mr. Chairman and delegates to the United Nations conference on international organisation: Oh, what a wonderful day this can be in history!"  With these words, US President Harry S. Truman opened the conference on the establishment of the United Nations.

To this end, diplomats from fifty countries met on 24 April 1945 in San Francisco for the founding conference. With 850 delegates, consultants and other staff – a total of 3,500 people – it was considered the largest international conference of its time to date. It was one of the longest conferences with ten general assemblies and almost four hundred committee meetings all spread over a good two months. So, one can say without further ado that the roots of today's megalomania of the United Nations were laid when it was founded.

The bureaucratic approach in San Francisco was equally ground-breaking. Initially, the conference setup a steering committee made up of the heads of delegations from all participating countries. This committee was given the task of deciding on all political questions and fundamental matters. Even with only one representative per country, the committee size of fifty people was of course too unwieldy for detailed questions. As a result, a 14-member board was elected from the heads of delegation to prepare recommendations for the steering committee.

The draft Charter was then divided into four sections, each of which was examined by one commission. The first commission dealt with the general objectives of the organisation, its principles, membership, the secretariat and the question of the amendments to the charter. The second commission reviewed all the powers and responsibilities of the General Assembly, while the third commission discussed the Security Council. The fourth commission prepared a draft statute for the International Court of Justice. But it did not stop there: the four commissions were again subdivided into twelve specialist committees.

Anyone who claims today that the UN has become increasingly complex over the years is right but, in all truth, the UN was complicated from the very beginning. Perhaps this is due to its mammoth task – securing world peace – but perhaps this also explains why it is only inadequately able to fulfil this task.

Even at the time, the struggle to find the right words, the politically correct terms, was already emerging. For example, when releasing colonies into freedom, should the assumption of trusteeship by the United Nations bring the affected state "independence" or "self-government?" Even then, the rule was: anyone who thought that it was insignificant, as long as  it brought the people concerned the desired freedom they longed for, had not reckoned with the bureaucrats. The result of the deliberations on this specific question probably already indicated the future of many UN results at that time: It was agreed on the formulation "independence or self-administration."

The competencies of the International Court of Justice gave rise to an extensive debate. The conference decided that Member States would not be obliged to recognise the authority of the Court of Justice but that they would voluntarily give their consent to binding case law. This non-binding nature, which later often earned the United Nations the reputation of a "paper tiger," was established when it was founded. During its existence, the UN has repeatedly been accused of producing tonnes of paper in time-consuming voting processes and marathon meetings that have a negligible effect. It can be countered that it is at least a first step to put the "better world" on paper and thereby set goals. Because only those who have goals can set out to meet them – and possibly and hopefully, convince others to follow the same path as well.

But that is exactly what the United Nations often fails to do: it is great at describing lofty goals but often, on the way there, only sets out triple, barely perceptible steps and then finds that very few follow them. As a result, the discrepancy between the goals set and the successes achieved has widened over the decades, as shown by an interim balance sheet on the UN's 75th anniversary. This is also true because over the course of time it has developed and proclaimed increasingly ambitious goals, so that failure on the way has seemed almost inevitable. Many of the roots of this development were laid at the foundation of the United Nations; this includes the organisation of resolutions.

Apart from resolutions of the UN Security Council, all United Nations resolutions are merely recommendations, guidelines that states may or may not adhere to. In other words: states can easily agree to a resolution because they know they do not have to adhere to it anyway.

Basis for a better world

Nevertheless, the founding negotiations took a long time. It was not until 26 June 1945, a good two months after the conference began, that the negotiations were concluded, and the United Nations Charter was solemnly signed by the fifty founding states. US President Harry S. Truman said at the final meeting: "The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honour you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory in Japan, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself. With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to a time when it would be possible for all worthy people to lead a decent life as free human beings."

The words expressed the hopes of the time after sixty million deaths in World War II.  Such a massacre should never be repeated. However, Truman pointed out that it was not just the fine words in the Charter that mattered but above all their implementation, i.e. the application of the Charter: "If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we try to use them selfishly, for the benefit of a single state or a small group of states, we are also guilty of treason."

More than 75 years later, these words now seem like a gloomy prophecy, because it is precisely by virtue of the implementation that the UN has repeatedly failed over all these decades - significantly also due to the self-interest of individual veto powers.

On 28 June 1945 Poland became a member as the fifty-first founding state; the country was not ready to sign two days earlier because the formation of the government had not yet been completed. Officially, the UN has only existed since 24 October 1945. On that day, the Charter was also signed by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the USA and many other countries. The UN and its member states have created the Charter of the United Nations as a working basis. It defines the fundamental principles of intergovernmental cooperation as well as the goals and tasks of the world organisation.

From the outset it emerged from the Charter that the United Nations did not see itself as a world government. Accordingly, they do not enact any laws, but only make recommendations, which in the UN language are called resolutions. The resolutions are usually moral and cautionary but ultimately non-binding. Only one exception was made to this: The resolutions of the UN Security Council are fundamentally binding under international law.

If one criticises the UN today, as often occurs in this chapter and in the further course of this book – it is always meant as constructive criticism – because one must give it credit for the fact that some of the developments that today decisively determine our world could hardly have been foreseen back then. This includes terrorism, which ultimately triggered US intervention in Afghanistan.

Only states are permitted to be members of the United Nations. Non-state organisations such as the Diplomatic Council, whose publisher is issuing this book, can accredit themselves to the UN with observer and advisory status to be heard. The UN has, it seems, almost innumerable main and subsidiary organs, specialised agencies and programmes, which represent an extremely complex structure. In international politics, the United Nations appears either as a forum – for example, the General Assembly –, as an instrument – for example for UN member states – or even as an actor – among other things in the form of the UN Secretary-General.