The author is former ambassador to the European Union and China
Richard Perle, the influential American defence analyst, recently predicted that Saddam Hussein “will take the United Nations down with him…what will die in Iraq is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order”. Perle denounced the “liberal conceit” that all hopes of world order rest on the principle that only the UN security council can legitimize the use of force.
So does the UN security council have a future after the Iraq war' Or has it been consigned to the dustbin of history by the decision of the US superpower to assert a right to strike preemptively against any potential threat, with or without the sanction of the security council' In order to seek answers to these questions, we must first take a clear-eyed view of the realities of the security council — and some of the myths surrounding the UN.
The UN charter was crafted by the Allied powers during the last stages of World War II. The principal idea underlying the charter was that the “Big Four” — the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and China — would act in concert to maintain international peace after World War II. France was later added to the list. Each of these five “great powers” was given a permanent seat in the security council as well as the right to veto any substantive decision which it deemed unacceptable. Thus the UN charter envisages the maintenance of international peace by an oligarchy of five “great powers” acting in concert. The charter provides for democratic debate in a general assembly in which all member states were represented but decisions of this assembly are not enforceable, unlike decisions adopted by the security council under the provisions of chapter VII of the charter.
One of the myths that have grown up around the UN is that it reflects the application of the democratic principle to international affairs. In reality, application of democratic voting procedures is restricted to non-binding or non-enforceable decisions. On all major questions of war and peace, decisions can be adopted only on the basis of unanimity among the five permanent members as well as a two-thirds majority of all security council members. The UN charter reflects a combination of the oligarchic and democratic principles, with somewhat greater weight accorded to the former.
The security council has had a lacklustre record during the greater part of its existence. As we have seen, its peace enforcement provisions were based on the assumption that the five permanent members would act in concert. During the Cold War years, this condition could rarely be satisfied. On important peace enforcement issues, the permanent members were ranged on opposite sides of the East-West divide, thus paralysing the security council. The security council remained largely immobilized during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War gave rise to expectations that the security council would at last come into its own. Since East and West were no longer ranged against each other, it was hoped that it would be possible for them to cooperate in maintaining and, where necessary, enforcing international peace. Indeed, the council did enjoy a brief springtime during which it helped to resolve a number of questions that had defied solution for several years, such as Namibia, Angola and Cambodia. In 1991, it dealt with the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait by authorizing a US-led coalition to use military force against the aggressor. Many observers were led to believe that the security council had at last begun to function in the manner envisaged by the authors of the UN charter.
This was a superficial reading of the new situation. The salient feature of the “successes” notched up by the council in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War was that, in every single case, conflicts were resolved on American terms. In south-western Africa and in the Horn of Africa, the first step involved withdrawal of Cuban troops, a prior condition on which the US had long insisted. Similarly in Cambodia, a Vietnamese withdrawal was one of the first steps of the peace process brokered by the UN. In each case, the terms of the peace settlement reflected American global primacy rather than give and take between the opposing sides. After the end of the Cold War — and even more dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union — a single superpower dominated the international scene. If the security council appeared to be effective, it was because it had to a large extent become an instrument of US policy.
In a unipolar world, the sole superpower will find it possible in most cases to bend the security council to its will, permitting the UN and its votaries to preen themselves on the effectiveness of that organization. This is essentially what happened in the early post-Cold War period.
However, the superpower may well ask itself whether it is necessary for it to seek a mandate from the security council before taking recourse to military action. After all, no country (apart from the target) will resist it militarily and few would deem it prudent to offer even political opposition. There is of course the question of legitimacy but the superpower and its allies will propound new legal doctrines to justify their actions. Thus the Western powers now claim the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention” to justify military action against selected target countries, brushing aside the question of state sovereignty. In the case of Iraq, the US is claiming a right to strike “preemptively” against a country which does not pose a current threat to it but which might do so in future unless it is checked.
In 1999, the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies decided to ignore the security council and launch military action against Yugoslavia, invoking the “right” of humanitarian intervention. France, which is now a vocal champion of the prerogatives of the security council, was an enthusiastic participant in the Yugoslav operation. One may conclude that the French stand in the Iraqi case arises from an understandable resentment over Washington’s failure on this occasion to fully consult with its principal allies before deciding to exercise the military option.. A major power like France is not prepared to be taken for granted, as if it was a minor ally.
Interestingly, though the war against Saddam lacks legitimacy in French eyes, Paris insists that the post-war dispensation in Iraq must be decided in the security council. This may not be a prime example of Gallic logic but it does testify to the consistency of France’s pursuit of the national interest. France is seeking to ensure that it is not deprived of its fair share of the spoils of a war that it deems illegal.
What conclusions can we draw from this analysis' The future role of the security council will largely depend on US policy. Washington will continue to find it convenient to entrust the council with routine peace-keeping operations as well as a limited number of peace enforcement operations in messy third world countries in which the US does not want to get directly involved.
In issues that Washington regards as vitally important, it will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to approach the security council. If it anticipates no opposition, particularly from any other permanent member, it will seek a council mandate. In other cases, it will simply bypass the UN. One may safely dismiss predictions of the imminent demise of the security council. The more likely scenario is that the council will revert to the anaemic existence that has been its fate ever since its birth, except for a short period at the end of the Cold War.