In these grim and violent times, it may seem odd to fret about diplomatic dysfunction in the United Nations Security Council. But at its best that forum is a bulwark against anarchy. Its five permanent members—America, Britain, China, France and Russia—are balanced by a further ten governments elected to two-year terms. Responding to crises both large and obscure, council resolutions have over the years imposed sanctions, peacekeeping missions, arms embargoes or, at a minimum, international scrutiny on tyrants, terrorists and coup-leaders who might otherwise enjoy complete impunity.

That system is breaking down. Liberal democracies, notably, accuse Russia of playing wrecker at the UN. The country was always truculent and self-serving in the Security Council. Now diplomats worry that Russia is an “existential” threat to it. Irresponsible acts are stacking up. In July last year Russia killed off a UN mission that delivered humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas of Syria, calling it an affront to the sovereignty of the Syrian government, its ally. A month later Russia’s veto ended a sanctions regime in the west African country of Mali. In their final report, UN monitors there reported on killings and crimes involving Malian troops and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. In March this year Russia closed down a UN panel of experts that monitored compliance with sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes (and had reported on sanctions-busting arms deals between North Korea and Russia).

To be sure, many UN member states, from the developing world but also from the West, accuse America of undermining the Security Council by vetoing resolutions that condemn Israeli actions in Gaza. America, though, is charged with selectively upholding the post-1945 world order. In contrast, when Chaguan visited New York recently he heard diplomats from four continents voice fears that Russia is bent on tearing that order down. In the next breath, those same envoys asked pointed questions about Russia’s reliable supporter on the Security Council, China.

Those questions are sharp because China calls itself a defender of the UN system. The structure of the Security Council, with its veto rights for permanent members, matches China’s vision for an orderly world. Though Communist Party leaders talk a good game about fairness and equality between large and small countries, they also consistently argue that stability rests on heeding the interests of the strongest nations. In a speech at the UN’s offices in Geneva in 2017, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, praised by name the Peace of Westphalia, built on two 17th-century treaties that bound sovereign states to refrain from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs while balancing one another’s interests and ambitions. In the words of Mr Xi: “Major powers should respect each other’s core interests and major concerns.” Chinese diplomats duly blame America for the war in Ukraine, arguing that NATO enlargement in eastern Europe pushed Vladimir Putin into a corner.

Still, until recently, even as China’s rhetoric became more anti-Western, diplomats saw signs of Chinese pragmatism in the Security Council. Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, American officials shared with China the text of a council resolution condemning Russia. Knowing that Russia would block it but eager to avoid a Chinese veto, American diplomats watered the text down in return for a Chinese abstention. Also in 2022, China lobbied Russia to renew the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan.

In each of the egregious cases listed above, involving Syria, Mali and North Korea, China took an ostensibly moderate stance, abstaining in key votes rather than joining Russia in a veto. When Russia ended the UN’s role in overseeing aid deliveries into Syria, Chinese diplomats privately assured foreign counterparts that they tried to head off Russia’s “no” vote. Yet fears are growing that China sees benefits in Russia’s nihilism.

Russia demolishes, China builds

After Russia cast its three vetoes, China joined it in criticising UN sanctions for ignoring the sovereign rights of Syria, Mali and North Korea. Some African governments voiced alarm at Russia’s dismantling of the UN mission in Mali. Many argue that arms embargoes prevent states from buying weapons, even as rebels arm themselves. In its day China has found UN peacekeeping missions useful in African countries where it has economic interests, says Richard Gowan of Crisis Group, a think-tank. But broadly, African nations are “sick and tired of former colonial powers telling them what to do”, and China and Russia are “keen to win over African members”, adds Mr Gowan. In a debate about Africa on May 23rd, China’s UN ambassador, Fu Cong, scolded unnamed Western countries for “adhering to the old mentality from the colonial era, wantonly interfering in the internal affairs of African states” and “always resorting to pressure and sanctions”.

Russia’s wrecking of the North Korea panel of experts shocked UN members. Some 60 governments had called for the panel to be preserved. America, Japan and South Korea urged China to intervene, but Chinese diplomats denied having leverage over Russia. After Russia’s veto, China blamed Western countries for rejecting earlier, Sino-Russian proposals to ease “harsh sanctions” on North Korea. “China leaned back and left the dirty work to Russia,” says a diplomat who watched the process up close. The UN panel obliquely criticised China for tolerating North Korean smuggling, but that was not China’s main motive, adds the diplomat. China needs stability to prosper through foreign trade, but is “unhappy with the West defining how the UN works”, he says. By letting Russia dismantle the old order, with its sanctions and monitoring of rights abusers, China can reshape what comes next. China’s approach is less dramatic, but surely matters more.

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