EDMONTON -- Of all the harsh lessons being learned by overly idealistic observers of international politics in recent weeks, perhaps none is so poignant as the one taught by the vote at the UN Security Council on March 15 over a resolution aimed at deeming the Crimean referendum illegitimate.
The politics of the UN Security Council are notoriously dysfunctional and at times of extreme urgency in the face of international crisis, particularly humanitarian crisis, the Security Council has a historical record of abysmal failure more than anything else. The council is comprised of 15 members, five of which are permanent members and have veto power, while the remaining 10 are elected for a term of two years on a rotating basis. The permanent members, typically referred to as the 'P5', also happen to be the victors of the Second World War who established the UN's most powerful decision-making body on principles of national interest and state sovereignty -- the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China.
Under the UN Charter, the Security Council is entrusted with maintaining international peace and security -- no small task. UN missions, whether in the form of peacekeeping, peace-building or any other deployment of force, fall under the Security Council's mandate according to Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Ironically, when we hear of UN inaction in the face of egregious rights abuses or unlawful military actions, the Security Council is typically the body responsible precisely because it is predicated on realist great power politics more than anything else. If the national interests of one of the P5 are at all threatened by a resolution, they are quick to use their veto and prevent action.
Recent events in Syria and Ukraine have demonstrated Russia's aggressive posturing in the international system, so when a resolution was put forward that would have prevented a referendum in Crimea it was a given Russia would veto.
Russia's behaviour at the Security Council has prevented any substantive action that would end the Syrian civil war, and Russia has also been obstructing progress on Iran's nuclear program based on its own connections to both situations. The veto of the Crimea referendum resolution is not at all surprising.
What is noteworthy from the final vote of the resolution is that 13 council members voted in favour, Russia vetoed but China abstained from voting.
As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated, the behaviour and positions of other emerging great powers has been telling as to how they perceive Russia's actions and, more, about how they perceive the influence of international organizations and basic principles of international politics, most notably sovereignty. China initially attempted to distance itself from Russia's soft invasion of Crimea, but eventually decided against any sort of condemnation. Also important on the point is India has not condemned Russian action, and India's national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, has stated Russia's actions are legitimate.
Throughout the era of American hegemony, there has been an emerging narrative that BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) were increasingly accepting Western norms and that Cold War-era thinking had all but disappeared. Not so fast.
China's abstention at the UN Security Council speaks volumes about how China recognizes not only the institution of sovereignty, but more, how it has now been shown the way to defy the West in pursuing its own interests.
For anyone who knows parliamentary procedure, while symbolic, abstentions are clear votes of "no" in the final calculation. China had a careful balancing act to play during these deliberations, in that it had to safeguard its relationships with the West for economic purposes, but it was not going to condemn Russia for doing exactly what it wants to do in other areas within its sphere of influence.
Russia's actions in Ukraine have demonstrated above all else the West, especially the U.S., is unprepared to deal with modern conflict in a meaningful way.
Western inaction in Syria and now in Ukraine highlights the lack of deterrent for aggressor states and Russia has written a diplomatic, political and military road map for how to circumvent Western interests moving forward.
The West needs to stop playing brinksmanship with states that are powerful enough to challenge the status quo and who are quickly learning the limits of Western resolve.
Robert Murray is an adjunct professor of political science in the department of political science at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow of security and defence at AIMS.