How to Save the United Nations (If We Really Have To)

Sunday, January 30, 2005
A statue of Oliver Cromwell, sword and Bible in hand, stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London. If the United Nations survives for another decade or so, it would be fitting for the organization to dedicate a statue of George W. Bush at its headquarters on Second Avenue, in tribute to the man who saved it from itself by offering it a final opportunity to get serious.
U.N. haters need not take alarm. More likely, the final opportunity will not be seized and the organization will fade into irrelevance, perhaps to be replaced by an association of democracies that are capable of acting.
Getting serious is what the United Nations’ report of “The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Changes” tries to do. The report contains some refreshingly harsh indictments of U.N. performance and recommends Security Council measures that would respond to the Bush Doctrine of preemption. At the same time, the panel insists that the Security Council be the ultimate source of authority on all matters of international peace and security and recommends Security Council expansion to make it “more representative” (i.e., to dilute American influence).
In December President Bush declared his support for “building effective multilateral institutions and supporting effective multilateral action.” The objective of the United Nations, he said, must be collective security, not endless debate; “when the U.N. promises serious consequences, serious consequences must follow.”
That describes what President Bush did in the fall of 2002 through intensive diplomatic efforts to prod the Security Council into upholding its own string of Chapter VII resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein cooperate with U.N. inspectors. The Council passed Resolution 1441 giving Saddam “a final opportunity” to comply. In January 2003, Chief Inspector Hans Blix reported to the Council that Saddam had not complied. President Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, and the United States then gained three resolutions that authorized the U.S. occupation of Iraq, approved the Iraqi interim government, and supported the process and timetable for democratization, including the forthcoming elections.
Had President Bush not held the Security Council to the requirements of its own resolutions on Iraq, the U.N.’s credibility as the principal forum for collective security would have collapsed. This U.S. effort to resuscitate the U.N. came against the background of the U.N.’s steep decline in the 1990s. The panel is refreshingly blunt about this. The reason the U.N. has not been effective in collective security, the panel admits, “has simply been an unwillingness to get serious about preventing deadly violence.”
The U.N. also had to get serious about preemption—a military option assumed to be forbidden under the U.N. Charter. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of nonstate fanatics like Al Qaeda, who cannot be deterred, contained, or diplomatically engaged, had created a stark new reality. The doctrine set out in the September 2002 National Security Strategy made clear that the United States, to prevent such threats to national security, “will, if necessary, act preemptively.” This involved more than Al Qaeda threats: Iran’s and North Korea’s secret nuclear programs, if not halted by nonmilitary means, will have to be handled by preemptive military action.
Kofi Annan seemed to get the message. In September 2003, he called on the Security Council to “face up squarely” to the concerns that drive some individual states (read United States) to “use force preemptively against perceived threats.” The U.N. had come to “a fork in the road,” Annan said, “a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded.”
The panel report responds to Annan’s call by bringing the doctrine of preemption into the fold of U.N.-authorized collective security. The report declares that the right of preemptive action has been sleeping there all along, in Article 51’s “inherent right of self-defense.”
The panel can’t leave it there, of course. If preemption is an option, the Security Council will have to continue to assert its paramount authority for giving or denying permission to act. What if some state (e.g., Iran) is acquiring, with hostile intent, nuclear weapons capability and it would be too dangerous to wait until the threat is imminent? Well, then, says the panel, you (the United States) will have to make your case to the Security Council and meet five criteria. If the Council decides the criteria have not been met, you will have to persuade, negotiate, deter, or otherwise contain the hostile threat. Even as the panel notes that the Council often has acted “too late, too hesitantly, or not at all,” it recommends this tendency be locked in by “declaratory resolutions” of the Security Council.
Nice try, but making the Security Council the judge of whether the criteria for preemption have been met returns to the fundamental fact that collective security sometimes may work when small, weak countries are involved but almost never works on big-power problems.
Otherwise, the panel report indicates an awareness of the nature and extent of the present challenge to the international system. Most significantly, it defines terrorism as “any action . . . intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants” as a way to intimidate a population or influence government—and finds that people under foreign occupation are not exempt from the prohibition on terrorism.
Expansion of Security Council membership has received the most media attention of all the proposals. The favored option would add six new permanent members but without the veto power wielded by the existing five. Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India have formed a junta to ensure they get four of those seats. Egypt, both Arab and African, will try to grab one of two seats reserved in the proposal for “Africa.”
The panel members deserve credit for taking on some of the toughest issues facing the organization and producing some frank assessments and serious analyses. But the culture of the U.N., as always, overwhelms the best intentions. What should the U.N. do? The answer is simple: Take action when action is needed. But this wordy report and its 101 recommendations that require further study—at a time when the Security Council has been unable to take effective action in Darfur and the General Assembly cannot produce a coherent statement on the crisis—are symbols of the U.N.’s decline.
Those who care about the U.N. and want it to survive might compare the records of President Bush and Kofi Annan.
After 9/11, President Bush sought U.N. authorization for the war in Afghanistan and then made a major effort to get the Security Council to act on its own resolutions on Iraq. With Saddam overthrown, U.S. policy has focused on helping Iraq regain its sovereign legitimacy as a member of the U.N. and has gained Security Council resolutions supporting that effort. Now President Bush has made a commitment to repair multilateral institutions and enable them to act effectively. In contrast, Annan has continued to declare that only the U.N. can authorize action even as it refuses to act. Under his stewardship, the Oil-for-Food Program became the most grandiose scandal in U.N. history. And even as the Security Council sought to shore up U.N. credibility, after the strains of the Iraq war, Annan declared the war “illegal.”
The panel report stresses the U.N.’s central role in collective security, a concept that came to the fore after World War I as a replacement for the “balance-of-power” concept. But as practiced by the U.N., which does not mention “democracy” in its Charter, and which has posed no obstacle to the presence of rogues and despots in its membership, collective security has been a flop. The U.N. is not dead yet. A final opportunity to save it exists. But perhaps it would be wise to start thinking about a new world organization, one with a membership that is committed to democracy.