Analyzing the United Nations is rather like being a nervous seismologist in California.
Geological experts are accustomed to tremors and small quakes along the San Andreas Fault, which bisects America’s most heavily populated state. But they are on alert for a much more powerful earthquake that could wreck some of the country’s most prosperous cities. Some say this will come soon.
U.N. experts are likewise hardened to the regular crises that shake the organization but do not upend it.
From Mali to Syria, the U.N. is struggling to make or keep peace. But despite occasional bouts of diplomatic frustration, the Security Council trundles onward with these processes. Having watched the U.N. at close quarters since 2005, I often wonder if it could ever screw up badly enough to make the world take notice.
The big powers that pay for the U.N. do not exactly turn a blind eye to its failings, but they do not pursue them to the death. Even the current American administration, which has made bashing the U.N. a trademark, largely lets it get on with its business. China likes to boast about its growing influence in New York and Geneva. The U.N., it seems, can get away with a whole load of failures at once.
There are historical examples of major crises that have led to massive losses of confidence in the U.N. The failure of peacekeepers to save civilians in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s almost spelled the end of blue-helmet operations. The Iraq crisis in 2003 left U.N. officials and diplomats dazed and disoriented.
It took the institution some painful years to recover from both episodes. U.N. officials and friendly diplomats crafted reform programs to get multilateralism back on track. It is possible that the U.N. is now on the cusp of a jolting crisis in the Middle East that could create a decisive breakdown in New York.
Over the past week, the danger of the Syrian war morphing into an all-out Middle East conflict has spiked.
Israel has launched large-scale air attacks against positions in Syria, apparently targeting Iranian personnel in reprisal for a downed fighter jet. Russia has warned against any harm to its own personnel. U.S. special operations forces and warplanes have also killed hundreds of pro-government fighters, possibly including Russian mercenaries, in response to an attack on rebels backed by Washington. The war appears to be on the verge of spiraling out of control.
This is still preventable. The International Crisis Group has proposed that Russia should mediate between Iran and Israel to cool tensions. But the U.N. needs to brace for the possibility such diplomacy will fail.
Let us assume that friction between Israel and Iran escalates into a more open conflict in Syria and, by extension, Lebanon. Israeli officials have discussed this risk for years. What would that mean for the U.N.?
The first-order effects are pretty easy to identify. The long-running U.N. effort to make peace in Syria, involving repetitive meetings in Geneva, would falter or go into limbo. The organization’s increasingly desperate efforts to get humanitarian supplies into Syria would also stall. But that would just be the start.
The Security Council could reach a level of paralysis over Syria far worse than those it has suffered to date.. Russia would almost certainly use its veto to protect Iran and Syria, and the U.S. would probably be even firmer in defense of Israel. The council could enter a hopeless cycle of vetoes and counter-vetoes.
This charade would also spell the death of the Iranian nuclear agreement. To date, the Trump administration has attempted to undercut the nuclear bargain through limited diplomatic steps at the U.N., such as criticizing Tehran’s crackdown on protesters in January. But even U.S. allies including Britain and France have so far offered lukewarm backing at best. An expanding Middle East war would cut through such niceties. Washington would likely go all out to nix the nuclear bargain, and while the British and French might struggle over how to respond, China and Russia would likely oppose the U.S., setting the stage for more Security Council vetoes and paralysis.
U.N. troops would, meanwhile, be in the firing line in any escalating conflict between Israel, Iran and Iran's ally Hezbollah. The long-running blue-helmet force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, would almost certainly find itself trapped in a firefight between Israeli and Hezbollah forces, as it previously did in 2006. If the fighting got out of control, UNIFIL units would have little choice but to evacuate. The sight of blue helmets stumbling toward the sea would only affirm a general sense that international diplomacy was failing.
It is hard to see how the U.N. could brush off a situation in which the Security Council was paralyzed, a major nonproliferation agreement collapsed and a well-established peace operation imploded. The organization can endure many crises, but a total meltdown in the Middle East would be the diplomatic equivalent of “the big one” in California: an institution-wrecking quake that would leave everyone in shock.
So U.N. officials should track the latest violence in the Middle East closely and fearfully.. It may be the crisis that reshapes their institution. Yet it is not alone.. A war on the Korean Peninsula is still a real threat, whatever the outcome of the current Winter Olympics détente between Seoul and Pyongyang. It, too, could leave the Security Council in disarray.
In international politics, unlike seismography, there are no absolutely reliable instruments to predict oncoming tremors. But the current proliferation of international tensions that are encroaching on U.N. diplomacy is hard to ignore. The U.N. has endured many crises without absorbing too much damage over the past decade. It now faces two situations that could reduce it to diplomatic rubble with very little warning.