The debate over what to do about Syria involves a tangle of international norms associated with different multilateral principles or realms of international law. While the tensions between them rarely reach the kind of high-stakes intensity as in the current debate, they are actually quite well-known and long-discussed.
There are norms governing when nations should (or shouldn't) use force in the United Nations Charter. An entirely separate body of international humanitarian law sets out norms and limits for the conduct of war. The laws of war set out general rules for limiting harm to civilians, but they also codify a special taboo against the use of chemical weapons. And the relatively new "responsibility to protect" principle covers the worst abuses and atrocities by governments against their own people.
One prominent strand of the current debate concerns how chemical weapons use relates to the "responsibility to protect" norm. Many skeptics of President Obama's proposed strike on Syrian government forces ask why 1,429 deaths from the August 21 chemical attack -- as distinct from the 100,000 lives claimed in the ongoing conflict -- warrant such a strong and focused response. It is a fair question, because the proposed military response indeed wouldn't address the large-scale carnage.
The answer is based partly on the international legal principle that Assad's forces violated and the practicalities of responding.
Strange as it seems, taboos against types of weapons set up a hierarchy of varying degrees of horror. After they poisoned so many people in World War I, chemical weapons have been seen as completely out-of-bounds, with no legitimate military purpose. It's true that innocent civilians in Syria will continue to die horrible and senseless deaths at the hands of conventional munitions, but the Geneva Protocol of 1925 says that gassing them is especially heinous. If this is counterintuitive, then so might be the entire system of the laws of war. We all know that war is hell, but that body of international law -- and its custodian, the International Committee of the Red Cross -- is dedicated to making it a bit less hellacious.
President Obama's proposal for limited strikes similarly differentiates Assad's most heinous breach as its objective. Here's how the president put it in his G-20 summit press conference: "We may not solve the whole problem, but this particular problem of using chemical weapons on children, this one we might have an impact on. And that is worth acting on." In other words, the forbidding challenge of resolving the conflict itself is no excuse for copping out on the narrower task of punishing a violation of a near century-old standard of civilization.
Which brings us to the issue of the United States as the "world's policeman" and the UN Charter's norms for the use of force. Aside from cases in which nations exercise their right to defend against attackers, Chapter VII of the charter makes the Security Council the arbiter of when force can be used on behalf of the global common good. And in some instances the council has been an effective representative of the international community at-large. Yet the Charter also granted a veto to the council's five permanent members -- generally as a nod to global power realities -- thus putting Russia in the catbird seat. It is quite a stretch to paint President Putin as a civic-minded steward of global security as he shills for his murderous Syrian client.
If Putin pulls a chemical weapons-disarmed Assad out of his hat, then he will have done some good. However, the key is to preserve and enforce the global status quo on the use of chemical weapons, and despite all the who's up/who's down commentary touting Putin's craftiness, he has actually put himself on the hook to deliver those results.
A similar point can be made about the authority of the Security Council itself. A case like this tests the limits of the council's inherent legitimacy. Does it really help preserve the rules-based multilateral order to observe the proper process while doing so undermines a standard of civilized behavior? Surely the international system rests not just on the decision-making rules for its multilateral bodies but also the substantive norms governments must observe to be members in good standing of the community of nations.