The United Nations will soon celebrate its 60th birthday, and its future has never been more in doubt. The institution is mired in scandal, with investigations underway into the widely discredited oil-for-food program, into the awarding of a $10-million-a-year U.N. contract to the firm that employed Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s son, and into alleged criminal acts by peacekeepers in Africa and the Balkans.
But at least as worrisome as these ethical and criminal issues is the fact that the U.N. has proved woefully ineffective, both during the Cold War and in the years since, at what is undeniably one of its primary missions: ensuring international security.
This was underscored earlier this month when Annan proposed a series of reform recommendations clearly directed at making the U.N. relevant again. The most fundamental problem with the recommendations is that they continue to call for the U.N. Security Council to be the exclusive venue through which legitimate decisions about the use of military force should be reached when a threat is gathering but not yet “imminent.”
Whether the U.N. Charter supports this notion is highly arguable. The charter originally forbade force only when it was used for specific disfavored purposes, such as conquest or colonization; other than that, it preserved the inherent right of states to defend themselves. No doubt some of the charter’s drafters would have liked to limit that right to cases of imminent attack -- but they lost that argument.
Today, as Annan candidly admits, there is no consensus among U.N. member states, and especially among the permanent members of the Security Council, on when the use of military force is legally justified.
In fact, the Security Council has rarely reached a consensus on the use of force, even in responding to the gravest international crises. Only twice in its history has the U.N. “authorized” the use of force -- in response to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and to North Korea’s 1950 invasion of South Korea. And even in those cases, it did so by acknowledging the right of United Nations members to act in self-defense, rather than invoking the “collective security” provisions of the charter.
In the post-Sept. 11 world, requiring democratic, law-abiding states to have the Security Council’s blessing before they can prevent grave, but not imminent, threats would be suicidal. Even on the issue of genocide in Darfur -- where the interests of great powers are not implicated to any great extent, and where the moral imperatives for an international action are compelling -- the Security Council has failed to act.
Annan’s report also discusses how the world should respond to rogue governments’ domestic atrocities separately from how the world should respond to terrorism. This subtle but symbolic distinction -- between intervening to protect the citizens of another country from their brutal rulers and using force to protect one’s own nationals -- makes neither legal nor policy sense. It does, however, reflect the United Nations’ clear bias in favor of humanitarian interventions and against self-defense-driven uses of force.
The reason the U.N. has so much difficulty reaching consensus when use-of-force issues arise is not hard to figure out, and the problem cannot be resolved by institutional reforms -- even radical ones. Each U.N. member state perceives threats to international peace and security differently, because each is, in fact, a unique and independent political society, with a distinctive view of its potential exposure, capabilities and responsibilities.
It was not surprising that the United States assessed the threat posed by Hussein’s Iraq differently than did France or Germany, given the far greater burden Washington bears for maintaining security in the Middle East. Similarly, the U.S. views the threat of transnational Islamist terrorism far differently than many of its allies because the U.S. is both a prime target and the major custodian of the current international system. The threat to its national interest, not to mention its citizens, is accordingly greater.
Granting the U.N. the kind of primacy envisioned by the secretary-general would require the United States as well as other member states to subordinate their interests, and the lives of their citizens, to an inherently ineffectual decision-making apparatus that they do not, and ultimately cannot, control. This is unwise and unrealistic. There is no doubt that the U.N. can continue to serve a valuable role on the international scene -- as a forum where issues can be discussed and, on occasion, resolved. But it is not and should not be cast as the final arbiter that Annan evidently would like it to be.