How Libya Did and Did Not Affect the Security Council Vote on Syria

The chorus of commentators who argue that Libya set a precedent that doomed UN Security Council action on Syria appears to be growing. Here is Steve Walt in Foreign Policy, Joshua Foust in the Atlantic,  Jack Goldsmith in Lawfare, building on earlier pieces by  Scott Horton and Walter Russell Mead .

I don’t have a problem with these arguments to the extent that they are about the perceived negative consequences of the Libyan intervention for China and Russia’s domestic and international interests. But, as I wrote yesterday, I find the view that China and Russia vetoed because they felt “duped by the expansive interpretations given to the March 2011 UNSCR Resolution on Libya,” as Jack Goldsmith put it,  naïve and overly reliant on taking Russian and Chinese statements  at face value.

To be sure, many of the articles mentioned above rely on multiple links between Libya and Syria. Yet they all stress the precedent argument. Foust argues that China and Russia vetoed because NATO allies “badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention.” Walt claims that “part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council’s mandate during last year’s intervention in Libya.”

So, how plausible is it that the Russians and Chinese were duped by the Security Council resolution on Libya? The most important passage in resolution 1973 is that it authorizes Member States “acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements” to:

to take all necessary measures [..] to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.

In UN speak, “take all necessary measures” means “use force.” There are two restrictions on the use of force: that it should be to protect civilians attacked by the government and that it should not lead to a foreign occupation. Arguably, NATO exceeded the first restriction in that it actively helped the resistance defeat the regime. It is true that the Russians were vocal opponents of these actions.

What is not credible, however, is that the Russians couldn’t have foreseen that resolution 1973 essentially authorized regime change. While the Russians now insist that any resolution on Syria is neutral on the domestic conflict, resolution 1973 actively takes sides and condemns the Libyan regime. It allows France, the UK, and the US to use force to protect civilian populated areas under threat of attack, specifically mentioning Benghazi where the uprising was at its most intense. This is clearly a resolution that was designed to aid the Libyan rebels in their struggle against the government. There is no credible legal or other mechanism to hold states accountable for exceeding the restrictions of the resolution. These resolutions only matter to the extent that they make the intervention appear more legitimate in the eyes of domestic and foreign publics and governments. Why would you authorize such a resolution if your objective is to prevent actively encouraging regime change?

As I mentioned yesterday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was that country’s UN permanent representative for a decade. He has been part of many deals where the Russians and Chinese were perfectly willing to set aside their rhetorical commitment to nonintervention in domestic affairs. There is no way he didn’t understand what he was authorizing. Just as Obama’s insistence that this was not about regime change should have been taken with a heavy grain of salt, so should Lavrov’s later cries of foul play. This is business as usual in international politics: you strike deals that your constituents don’t like or that are inconsistent with past rhetoric, ask the other side to cloak it in terms that are acceptable, and then feign outrage when things happen that you knew would happen when you struck the deal.

What is much more plausible is that Libya didn’t pan out in the way the Russians and Chinese hoped. Recent UN authorized interventions have actually been pretty good for Russian and Chinese interests. They left the West bogged down in costly conflicts and didn’t affect their commercial interests very much. By contrast, Libya was cheap for the West and left the Russians and the Chinese on the outside. I think Walter Russel Mead has it right when he writes:

But what Russia thought it expected and deserved in return for its abstention on the Libya vote was due consideration for its commercial interests in Libya.  France, Britain and Qatar seem to be dividing that pie enthusiastically among themselves and nobody is thinking about Russia’s share and Russia’s price.

Then there are the domestic consequences, where protesters in both China and Russia appeared to gather strength from the Arab Spring revolutions. In short, little good resulted for the Russians and the Chinese from Libya. Before they thought it might be expedient to cautiously be on the side of the Arab League. Now firm resistance seems like the better policy option to protect their interests. It is also worth stressing again that the inability or unwillingness of states to create a credible option for acting outside the UN Security arena makes resistance a feasible policy option.

6 Responses to How Libya Did and Did Not Affect the Security Council Vote on Syria

  1. Taylor Fravel February 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm #


    Nice piece. At least for China, you may be underestimating the impact of NATO’s shift from protection of civilians to close air support for the rebels. China viewed the resolution as one that would maintain the status quo, more or less. Also, although China had a larger number of workers in Libya, they were contractors. Investments were relatively limited. So your argument is more persuasive for Russia than for China, but Russia’s vetoes have created the cover for China’s.


    • Erik Voeten February 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm #


      You know much more about China than I do so you are probably right. However, when you authorize “all necessary means” the train leaves the station and there is nothing to pull it back. I find it hard to believe that the Chinese didn’t realize this.


  2. Jim Fearon February 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I’m also wondering about the idea, common in the blog posts etc that you are talking about here, that the failure of the resolution contributes to undermining the UN’s authority or legitimacy. Maybe, but suppose the resolution had passed and Assad just went ahead with what he was doing. The resolution makes all kinds of demands on Syrian government behavior that surely were not going to be met with compliance. And it also seems to rule out, or at least cast great doubt on, military intervention.

    It’s hard to say what makes for greater UN authority or legitimacy in a situation like this. You could even argue that the international focus on the vote itself, independent of the outcome, contributes to a perception of the importance of the UNSC (consistent with Erik’s 2005 IO paper!)

  3. Mary Gallagher February 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Erik points out in his original point at the end about the importance of domestic politics in both countries. I don’t think we should overlook that and, in particular, how the progression of regime change occurred. In order words, it’s important that Syria is after Libya (and both were after Tunisia and Egypt). Given the regimes’ nervousness about contagion and the Arab Spring (the PRC propaganda and censorship machine blocked the word “jasmine” at the height of its concern!!), one of the only palatable ways to deal with the Syria issue is to portray this as another example of Western “hegemony” and interference. I don’t know for sure but I can imagine that the recent “chaos” (soccer riots, religious violence) in Egypt is getting a lot more Chinese media coverage than Tahrir Square did last year. It goes along with an interpretation of democratization that says: “this is a Western conspiracy to weaken other countries. First them, then China.” It won’t win the hearts and minds of all Chinese, but it will probably strike a chord with many.

    Another issue that we shouldn’t dismiss is the well-demonstrated inability of the top Chinese leadership to make hard decisions the closer we come to a political transition. With the upcoming leadership change in the fall, it is not implausible that disagreement in Beijing made it impossible for the Chinese officials at the UN to do anything but veto.

  4. Scott Monje February 7, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    You present the Russians and the Chinese as each having a single, unified view. That can be a useful simplification, especially given that we don’t know the internal decision-making processes, but it can also lead us astray. There may be an interactive process between domestic and foreign-policy decision making. Mary Gallagher points out that the dynamics of the Chinese succession may have had an impact. In Russia, too, there has been some public evidence of differences between Medvedev and Putin on the issue, with Medvedev taking responsibility for the decision and defending it while Putin suggested it was naive. This may reflect differing views of what Russia’s relationship with the West should be and how that relationship compares in importance to relationships with client states, former client states, or potential client states. Perhaps it even played some small role in the later announcement that Medvedev wouldn’t be running for president again.

  5. SteveLaudig February 8, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    “What is not credible, however, is that the Russians couldn’t have foreseen that resolution 1973 essentially authorized regime change.” Yes, the Russians and the Chinese thought Obama was different [he is, better spoken, better international salesman for imperialism] from Bush [just do it!], but the interventionist, America-as-light-to-the-World-mission, isn’t. That was the lesson they have learned. Tardy, but there. I wouldn’t be surprised if u.s. diplomats [TeamObama] led others to believe [oh, we’re not W, we’re “Democrats”, different brand, this will be Serbia, not Iraq II]. Don’t underestimate the power of bait and switch to from a first time seller to a first time buyer even in the ‘brain trust’ the rules different parts of the world.