In the past two months, three of the most influential individuals at the United Nations have made their exits. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bade farewell in December. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power quit as the Obama administration wrapped up in January. And this week, Russian representative Vitaly Churkin died unexpectedly at his office at the Russian mission in New York. His departure may be the most significant of all three.
Ban was a stodgy bureaucrat. Power was a fiery but often frustrated advocate for serious U.N. interventions in trouble spots like the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Churkin was an old-school diplomat, and a strikingly good one.
Over the course of a decade in New York, he reasserted Russia’s authority as a permanent member of the Security Council after the Kosovo and Iraq crises. In those cases, despite its veto, Moscow had been unable to stop Western interventions. Churkin redressed the balance by exploiting Western uncertainties over how to engage in Syria’s civil war, blocking all serious U.S. and European efforts to put pressure on Damascus.