A few days ago, the Dresden (Germany) authorities opened a new four-lane bridge across the Elbe into the historic city. In building this bridge, which will significantly improve traffic flows, they have now lost their world heritage status. This was made plain in June, when the chairman of the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), World Heritage Committee Chairperson, Spaniard Maria Jésus San Segundo, denounced this as an unacceptable assault on a ‘cultural landscape’. So that’s it. Dresden is no longer a World Heritage site. It is now an ancient city, full of wonderful buildings (many, for reasons that we well appreciate, lovingly restored) and a nasty modern bridge. How easy it all is.
If you give someone the job of cost-free moral posturing, that is what you get; cost-free moral posturing. The people of Dresden had a more difficult decision. They could see that the new bridge would have an impact on how their city looked, and they agonised over it, because they could understand the benefits as well. They engaged in serious cost-benefit analysis, so that, by the time the bridge was finished, they could accept it. The worthies in Seville in June (where the UNESCO committee met) didn’t need to do this. There was no perceived benefit to them; no interests that they needed to take into account. They behaved as environmental zealots typically do.
Of course, the point here is not that this sort of issue should never be resolved in favour of great architecture, or scenic landscapes (or even rare snails, for that matter) but that these values need to be seriously assessed against other interests, which we may sometimes think to be ultimately more valuable, but in a different domain (for example, the economic or social domain). As an aside, I would wager that tourist interest in Dresden will not be adversely affected by the new bridge. Indeed, they might even appreciate the convenience of improved traffic flow as they get about to see the sights.
The situation of the UN Security Council and, particularly its chemical weapons inspection team, presently in Damascus, is very different. Here there are powerful interests at play. People are even shooting at the inspectors on their way to work. The conclusions that they come to, will matter to powerful parties, who may have their careers in their hands. Who would not wish to continue as United Nations ‘High Representative’? It may be that they can conclude that chemical agents (perhaps Sarin, or another nerve gas) were responsible for at least some of the symptoms that were widely reported, and that residues or post-mortem samples collected by the inspectors, are consistent with this but they are unlikely to conclude who did it.
A crucial factor in all this is that the terms of reference for the inspection provide that ‘only evidence personally collected may be used to fashion a final judgement’. It may be that there are artefacts (shell, or missile casings, or residues in canisters) that confirm that chemical weapons were used but there may not be enough evidence to confirm who was responsible for the atrocity. According to the principle cited above, evidence of telephone conversations concerning the bombardment and overheard by regional intelligence organisations, cannot be considered. Deadly war gases were employed, it will be said, but we cannot be certain by whom. That may be sufficient for a diligent weapons inspector to retain his or her job, but it will not satisfy an outraged world.
Of course, it has been evident from the outset that the United Nations Security Council will not be able to determine these things either, and it will not be able to agree on any action. Not even a condemnation. Russia has vital strategic interests in the region and these include the retention of its relationship with the Assad regime. It is not going to find any evidence as sufficient and it has a veto.
For the West, the issue seems to have been resolved to this point, on sheerly ‘cultural’ (moral) grounds. An atrocity was committed and it cannot go unpunished. But even here we may ask, what about our other interests? Any significant strike on Syrian military assets, would inevitably advantage the rebel forces in that country. Are we sure we would want to do that? There is a widely-identified risk that this could bring to power extremist Islamic forces who do not mean us well. On the other hand, a militarily non-significant strike would merely reinforce a widespread opinion that present American leadership is weak and indecisive, and that is not in our interest either. In addition to this, there is the obvious risk of further harm to innocent civilians from any military operations
Speaking generally, a need to show disapproval may not be enough reason to commit to war, with all its uncertainties. Recent experience has shown how difficult it is to influence the behaviour of states within their own borders (notwithstanding the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’). We might think that intervention with military force is only indicated when there are strong strategic and security interests at stake, as there were in the case of Afghanistan. As with Dresden, the simple moral impulse to action may need to be examined in a wider context.