The UN’s Half-Full Glass

NAIROBI – Families trapped by the fighting in Syria are reportedly eating “salads’’ made of leaves and grass to stave off hunger. According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than two million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Back home, many more face a brutal winter without adequate food, medicine, or shelter. And, as if conditions could not be worse, the country is facing a polio outbreak.

The international response to Syria’s crisis has been nothing short of disastrous. Indeed, Syria seems to be the embodiment of failure on the part of the UN. The Security Council is deadlocked. In Damascus, would-be peacemakers come and go, talking diplomacy but achieving nothing. Relief agencies are blocked from operating where they are needed most.

Yet it is clear that without the UN, the situation would be even worse. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey would be under even more pressure from the refugees flooding across their borders. And while efforts to achieve a ceasefire have failed, diplomacy has not – at least not entirely. In October, UN inspectors took initial steps to destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles and facilities, with the government’s full cooperation.

In Syria – as in so many other conflict-affected areas, where the UN is fighting to promote peace and stability – there is no such thing as a clear victory. As an experienced statesman once told me, “At the UN, we do not settle for failure, nor do we expect success.” In diplomatic negotiations, you take what you can get. In humanitarian crises, you do what is possible – usually too little, and often too late. “We drink from a cup that is eternally half full,” he concluded.