A Reshaped Role for the U.N.

Michael McFaul is an associate professor of political science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University, and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In asking the United Nations to discipline Iraq for its defiance of the world body’s disarmament resolutions, President Bush sought to demonstrate that he is not an unbridled unilateralist, as his critics claim, but a believer in international institutions. It was an important first step toward renewing U.S. membership in the international community. But before the United States can follow through on its commitment, the United Nations must reform itself. Ironically, an administration generally dismissive of international treaties and agreements may be the catalyst the U.N. needs to regain its relevance and credibility in world affairs.

Many critics of the Bush administration erroneously assume that its unilateralist impulses upset a finely tuned, efficient United Nations. Their misconception of the world body is partly to blame. They wrongly compare the U.N. General Assembly to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Security Council to the U.S. Senate. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is the world’s chief executive, in their view. This notion of how the international community works imperils the continued existence of the U.N. as a meaningful organization.

The United Nations and its Security Council have never been the ultimate authority in deciding issues of war and peace. During the Cold War, the Security Council was so deeply divided that it rarely voted on anything meaningful. After the Cold War, the U.N.’s role expanded but its effect on world affairs remained limited. For example, the Clinton administration did not seek U.N. approval of the NATO-led war against Serbia. Nor did the United States and Great Britain seek U.N. approval for their last major bombing campaign against Iraq, in 1998.


Not only has it been absent on a multitude of international issues involving war, genocide and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations has also failed to enforce its own resolutions. As Bush rightly pointed out in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, the most glaring evidence of this is the 16 resolutions on Iraq that Saddam Hussein has defied for years. Unfortunately, the list of unenforced U.N. resolutions numbers far more than 16.

This charade has to stop. Governments that claim authority to rule but lack the means to do so eventually fall. Communities that cannot enforce their norms fall apart. The same will happen to the United Nations unless it changes.

Key to that change is abandoning the distorting metaphor of the U.N. as a world government. International treaties are not domestic law writ globally. In the United States, only a majority is needed to turn a bill into law. Minorities, even large minorities, opposed to the bill cannot block it from becoming law. Once in place, laws are enforced by third parties, not by their drafters.

Treaties are not born this way. Every party to a treaty must decide individually whether or not to sign it. Just because 150 countries sign a treaty, that doesn’t give it the force of law over the 151st country that refuses to sign, especially if that country is the most powerful in the world. In addition, no third party can enforce treaties, because there is, in fact, no world government. Kofi Annan does not control a police force, an Internal Revenue Service or an army. Rather, signatories to a treaty must also serve as its enforcers.

Accordingly, a more appropriate metaphor for an international treaty is a contract, specifically, a self-enforcing contract. Countries sign treaties because they have calculated it is in their national interests to do so. Like contracts, good treaties offer win-win solutions for all sides. If they make everyone better off, treaties will be self-enforcing because every party to one will, out of self-interest, want to preserve it.

If treaties are construed as contracts among states rather than as laws above them, all signatories will be obligated to give something in order to get something. The U.N. Charter is one such treaty. As a signatory to the charter, the United States should not expect to secure U.N. endorsement for military action against Iraq without giving something in return. That could be a more narrowly defined military mission than Washington would prefer, or a strong U.N. presence in a post-Hussein government.


But in asking for more control over U.S. actions, U.N. members should be careful not to ask for too much, lest they risk a break in relations with the United States. U.N. resolutions, especially on matters of war and peace, mean little without U.S. participation. The United States is the only country in the world with the power to enforce the U.N. resolutions on Iraq. As in the business world, stronger, bigger and richer countries have more leverage in negotiations than weaker, smaller and poorer ones. All members of the United Nations are not equal members of the international community.

To be successful partners, the United States and the rest of the international community must soberly recognize the asymmetry of power between them, and also realize that everyone can gain from cooperation, even if the gains are not distributed equally. After all, the costs of enforcement are not equally distributed. If the United States bears the burden of making U.N. resolutions relevant, other U.N. members should allow Washington to have a disproportionate say in the drafting of the resolutions.

The Bush administration and the United Nations are at an important crossroads. If the Bush team and other members of the U.N. Security Council fail to sign a new “contract” on Iraq, both parties will walk away the weaker. But the U.N. will be the bigger loser, since the United States has a far greater capacity to pursue its objectives alone than the U.N. does without the United States.

If, on the other hand, the U.S. and the U.N. can agree on a new Iraq contract, the U.S. campaign against Iraq would have greater legitimacy. U.N. cooperation would also ensure global participation in the rebuilding of Iraq. Out of such cooperation might emerge a more effective and relevant United Nations and a more internationally engaged United States. And one of the most heinous regimes in the world might also fall.