Multilateral Minutes

U.S. makes scant progress securing Chinese approval for a Security Council resolution condemning North Korea.

South Korea moves closer to full participation in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative.

Iran formally presents the nuclear swap deal with Turkey to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IMF releases report after its review of Spain’s economy: “the challenges are severe…”

Russia’s Medvedev on his country’s bid to join the WTO: “we have had enough of waiting on the doorstep.”

Get ready for the annual meeting of the UN Alliance of Civilizations! And remember–this is the official year of the Rapprochement of Cultures.

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The fight over aggression

In less than a week, hundreds of diplomats and activists will gather in Kampala, Uganda to review the first decade of the International Criminal Court‘s existence. There are a few amendments to the Rome Statute on the table, but by far the biggest issue will be the definition of aggression, which is listed as one of the crimes the court can prosecute but which has never been defined. It’s a hot-button issue because aggression goes to the issue of why states fight, rather than how they fight. Fundamentally, aggression is about whether a country has a just cause to use force, and that is always a deeply contentious issue.

The issue generates some interesting fault lines. The United States and several other major powers would rather the ICC stay away from the issue altogether or, at the very least, take its lead from the UN Security Council. This is not surprising. Countries in the habit of using military force do not want an independent international prosecutor sniffing around their reasons for doing so. The conflicts in Kosovo and Iraq, for example, were launched without Security Council approval–does that make them aggression? Under some definitions, the answer would be yes. 

Other divides on the issue are more unexpected. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch, a major supporter of the court, is not keen on defining aggression, which it fears will distract attention from the core issue of how combatants behave during conflicts. This puts HRW at odds with many in the advocacy community, who are pushing for a broad definition and who see tackling aggression as a key component of the Nuremberg legacy. Expect all these views to get a full airing in the next couple of weeks.

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Multilateral Minutes

South Korea will ask the Security Council to deal with the sinking of its ship.

Treasury Secretary Geithner talks Europe with China. He’s scheduled to leave Beijing shortly for meetings in London, Berlin, and Frankfurt.

Martin Walker broods: “Either the eurozone now integrates and becomes a federal state like the United States and under German economic management, or it collapses…”

Iran warns that the Brazil and Turkey-brokered fuel deal is off if the Security Council imposes new sanctions.

Germany’s ban on short-selling could violate WTO rules.

Did China suppress an IMF staff report on manipulation of the yuan?

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Multilateral minutes

EU finance ministers meet in an effort to stop the Euro-bleeding.

Turkey hosts a major international conference on Somalia–is there any international crisis Turkey won’t try to tackle?

Clinton, on her way to China, demands “an international–not just a regional response” to North Korea’s torpedo attack.

Russian lawmaker insists that new UN sanctions wouldn’t prohibit a planned sale of surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Cameron and Sarkozy make nice on policy towards the EU.

The international tribunal for Sierra Leone could call Naomi Campbell as a witness.

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Multilateral minutes

Merkel gears up to lobby the G20 for a new financial markets tax. Meanwhile, Canada encourages China to oppose it.

Brazil and India tell the World Health Organization to stop backing Big Pharma.

Is NATO’s next stop Palestine?

World Bank assistance for Lebanon–it may not be coincidental that Lebanon has a Security Council seat at the moment.

Australia’s PM reconsiders the shape of Asian multilateralism.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization to discuss the Kyrgyz crisis.

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What does it all mean?

Let’s stipulate something: it is exceedingly unlikely that a new round of Security Council sanctions–and certainly not the very modest ones being discussed now–will dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Even if the Council were to pass the current draft unanimously and with tears of joy in its collective eye tomorrow, most observers agree that Tehran’s policy wouldn’t change. Given that, what should one make of the diplomatic scheming, maneuvering, and vote-counting at the United Nations? Does the exercise in messy multilateralism have any value? Below, in no particular order, are some theories on that question:

1. No other option: On this view, those concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program have no good alternatives. Israel doesn’t have the military wherewithal to do to Iran’s program what it did to Syria’s (and Iraq’s before that). Even a U.S. military strike is not certain to destroy hidden and buried facilities, but it is certain to inflame the region and endanger U.S. and international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. So even if the chance that sanctions will be effective is vanishingly small, we should pursue them because there’s really nothing else to do.

2. Delay and Complicate: Sanctions may not change the minds of the mullahs but they can at least make the work of cobbling together the components for a nuclear weapons program more difficult. Iran has to worry that imports of necessary parts and technologies will be seized, and the draft resolution gives added authority to those countries able and inclined to sniff around suspicious cargo. In effect, sanctions ratchet up the costs for those involved in helping Tehran get the bomb (this assumes that Iran doesn’t already have everything it needs) and perhaps slows the process down by a matter of months. And those months could be precious. The simmering discontent with the regime could boil over at any point, leading to regime change and (likely) a new nuclear policy. Sometimes, kicking the can down the road is good policy.

3. Great Power Team-Building: In my book on the Security Council, I argue that one of the often overlooked values of the Council is that it helps keep the major powers in touch with each other, aware of each other’s sensitivities and interests, and that it can help drag out potential international crises, giving the big powers time to adjust their expectations and figure out face-saving exit strategies. The perceived need for Council consultation acts like a speed brake on international crises and serves as a check on dangerous unilateralism. Yes, Iran getting a nuclear weapon is undesirable, but ratcheting up big-power tension and possibly even sparking a great-power crisis by ignoring the Council would be much worse. So if consultation helps keep Moscow, Washington, Beijing, London, Paris, Brasilia, Ankara, Mexico City, and Tokyo (to name just the biggest players) on the same page–or at least in the same chapter–that’s valuable. And by respecting the Council process, Washington may make it tougher for other countries inclined to unilateralism to ignore it later.

4. Laying the Moral Groundwork: For those more sanguine about the military option, there could be another value to the process: securing yet another round of sanctions helps show the world that any eventual military strike was the last resort. Flash forward to spring 2011. U.S. bombers have just returned from the first of a series of strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Four times we went to the UN for sanctions,” President Obama could tell the world as he announces the strikes, “and four times Iran defied the international community.” For some key U.S. allies and for some portion of world public opinion, that effort may make a difference.

5. Dangerous Distraction: The above theories all posit that, however meager the results, Security Council diplomacy has some value. But what if it’s counterproductive? One argument is that the intense focus on process in New York distracts and deludes policymakers. Presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers get so focused on securing a resolution that they simply stop asking themselves whether it does any good. Mesmerized by the gyrations at the UN, they don’t do the hard work of preparing other options. Meanwhile, Tehran presumably inches closer to the bomb. In this view, time is on Iran’s side, and Ahmadinejad is secretly pleased to have the West tangled up in Security Council procedure.

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“Last effort by the West”

Tehran is working hard to paint the current dynamic on the Security Council as a struggle by the West to cling to power, even as emerging powers like Turkey and Brazil assume new prominence. According to one senior Iranian official:

This [UN Security Council draft] resolution is the last effort by the West…They feel that for the first time in the world developing countries are able to defend their rights in the world arena without resorting to the major powers [and] that is very hard for them.

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