Whether or not President Obama executes the planned military attack on Syria, one thing will be clear: The United Nations charter rules regulating the use of military force lie in ruins. Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power have all said that the Security Council cannot block American action. Obama supporters who believed that he would bring to the Oval Office a commitment to legality, after what they saw as the lawlessness of the Bush administration, must be confused or furious. And yet, whatever the merits of an attack on Syria, Obama is right to disregard the U.N. charter. It’s broken. Now he needs to explain how to fix it.
The U.N. charter speaks in unusually clear terms: Countries may not use military force except in self-defense or with the authorization of the Security Council. The Security Council consists of 15 countries, 10 of which rotate on and off, and five of which have permanent seats. The permanent members—the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom—possess vetoes that can block any resolution they disapprove of. If none of these countries veto, a resolution requires at least nine of the 15 total votes for approval.
The Security Council system was designed in the wake of World War II to stop the use of military force, except when needed to maintain collective security—to stop an aggressive regime early on. It utterly failed in its mission. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union blocked each other’s efforts to pursue their ends through the Security Council, seeing any security gain for one as a loss for the other. The major exception was a resolution authorizing countries to intervene on South Korea’s side in the Korean War, which was only possible because the Soviet Union walked out in protest over another issue, a mistake it never repeated.
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