It turns out that Vladimir Putin is a history buff. He has just written a lengthy piece for the American magazine National Interest, titled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War 2″ and published on June 18. In his assessment, Putin reviews the events leading to the second world war, including the Soviet Union’s notorious 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler — which he explains away as Stalin’s way of buying time to arm his nation for war — and writes extensively about the success of the wartime alliance among the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain that, he asserts, led to its most lasting achievement: the creation of the United Nations.
Indeed, Putin notes, the victors in World War II understood that after 1945, “the settlement of disputes by force has become prohibitively dangerous.” Thus they sought through a UN “to create a mechanism that would allow the leading powers to remain within the framework of diplomacy in resolving their differences. . . . In the past epochs, shifts of such magnitude have almost never happened without major military conflicts. Without a power struggle to build a new global hierarchy. Thanks to the wisdom and farsightedness of the political figures of the Allied Powers, it was possible to create a system that has restrained from extreme manifestations of such objective competition, historically inherent in the world development.”
In his enthusiasm over the UN’s founding, however, Putin has forgotten the sharp debates that actually took place among the allies over establishing such a body. The “wisdom” behind the organization, for example, came primarily from one leader, President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had long sought a replacement for the League of Nations, which had so badly failed the planet as a security institution. Still, Roosevelt had to strongarm both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at various meetings during the war — at Tehran, Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta — to win their agreement to a universal assembly. Each in his own way had preferred a less centralized body or simply to prolong the maintenance of the wartime consortium.
Roosevelt’s breakthrough in winning their O.K. was his idea of giving the veto power and permanent membership on the Security Council solely to the five most-powerful states in 1945 — the five victors of the war — the US, the USSR, Britain, France and China. His theory was that only the nations with the strongest militaries and greatest wealth could enforce UN mandates and thus be the appropriate parties to serve as “the policemen of the world.” FDR’s plan represented a decisive break with the League of Nations, where every country had been given the veto. That across-the-board veto had meant, in practice, that a single rogue nation could hinder the operations of the League, rendering it impotent.
Putin writes about the veto in a deceptively measured tone. He enumerates: “What is the veto power in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries. It is a statement by one of the five powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, take this position for granted, abandoning any attempts to realize their unilateral efforts. So, in one way or another, it is necessary to seek compromises.”
Putin’s friendly gloss on the veto is correct in this respect — without the cooperation of the Big Powers on the Security Council, the UN cannot effectively act on any conflict situations. But Putin is still cynical enough to pretend that the veto is virtuous when he knows full well that for him, it allows him to thwart any foreign meddling in his internal affairs. Nor does Putin address how the veto affects other nations in the Council who have long felt excluded from UN decision-making because of its reach. Indeed, almost every year, countries like Brazil, India, Japan, Germany and others point out that the power realities of today are vastly different than they were in 1945, and they insist that the Council should reconfigure itself to reflect the new dynamics in the world, either by adding more countries with veto powers to the Council or eliminating the veto.
Nonetheless, Putin remains unapologetic about the arrangement. He calls the notion of abolishing the veto “irresponsible.” If that happened, he asserts, the UN “would in essence become the League of Nations — a meeting for empty talk without any leverage on the world processes.” He adds in his essay that “the fact that the Cold War did not grow into the Third World War has become a clear testimony of the effectiveness of the agreements concluded by the Big Three. The rules of conduct agreed upon during the creation of the United Nations made it possible to further minimize risks and keep confrontation under control.”
So Putin, who has seldom shown up for the annual UN General Assembly meetings each fall to deliver remarks (the last time he appeared was in 2015), proves now to be a true aficionado of the institution. With the physical shutdown of the UN due to the coronavirus pandemic, he is even proposing a separate summit of the permanent-five members of the Council to be held on global matters.
Given all the tensions and serious disputes across the world, the increasing divisions between the US and Russia, the unsettled wars in Syria, Ukraine and Libya, one, I suppose, can be grateful that the UN, in the eyes of one of the planet’s most autocratic rulers, still remains a crucial player in the world. But does it change the behavior of Putin’s Russia to any degree? That remains to be seen.
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