David C. Unger: The U.N.’s Lost Decade

The past decade has brought more humiliation than glory to the United Nations. In 2003, Washington shoved aside the Charter, the Security Council and UN weapons inspectors to invade Iraq. Time and again, Iran and North Korea have gamed the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The 2009 Copenhagen Conference failed to achieve meaningful consensus or effective action on climate change. And so far at least, neither the Security Council not U.N. mediators have done much to restrain the killing in Syria or speed a political settlement.

What can we conclude from this unhappy record? Should we now declare the U.N. structurally unable to deliver on the Charter’s promises of collective security and international cooperation? Must we now look elsewhere – to “coalitions of the willing” organized by great powers and regional organizations? Or are there ways to restore some of the effectiveness the UN briefly achieved in the early 1990’s and then so quickly lost?

To answer these questions, we need to look into the main reasons for the UN’s recent failures. We can then consider what might realistically be done to remedy them, keeping in mind the geopolitical facts of life. We still live in a world dominated by sovereign great powers inclined to put narrow national interests ahead of broader international benefits. And in a vicious cycle, the UN’s diminished prestige has encouraged more selfish and unilateral actions by nations large and small.

Like it or not, the UN’s effectiveness ultimately depends on maintaining a fragile balance between universal legitimacy in a world of 193 member states of varying sizes, and a working consensus – or at least veto-proof consent – among the five great (or once-great) powers holding permanent seats on the Security Council. That need for balance is reflected in the formal design of the UN Charter and in the facts of international life in the real world.

Drafted in the grim and sobering shadow of the 20th Century’s second World War, the United Nations Charter pledged its signers to a set of ambitious and perhaps impossibly wishful goals. Aiming “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” member states pledged to settle future international disputes and resolve crises “by peaceful means and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.” They vowed “international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”

Survivors of the bloodiest conflict in human history were sincere in hoping for an end to war. But the UN’s founding generation knew the long odds against success. It had lived through the helpless inadequacy of the League of Nations, the failure of collective security to deter or counter Japanese, Italian and German aggression in the 1930’s, and the conclusion just months earlier of a victor’s peace achieved and defined by the brute force of massive armies under sovereign national control. The postwar world would be what Washington, Moscow and London made of it, and none of those three capitals seemed inclined to foreswear force or subordinate the fruits of military victory to uncertain experiments in international cooperation.

For more than four decades after the UN’s founding, cold war geopolitical rivalries paralyzed the Security Council and largely limited the UN’s role in international security to ratifying military outcomes forged on the battlefield and big power bargains cut elsewhere. Once that happened, the UN might (or might not) dispatch neutral multinational peacekeeping forces to police the resulting truces. The UN has no military force of its own. It depends on forces authorized by the Security Council but voluntarily contributed by member states.

And so for the first 45 years of the UN’s history, the “scourge of war” raged largely unchecked in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. Most international disputes were not resolved “by peaceful means,” let alone “in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.”

Then the cold war ended, and, just as important, ended with leaders in power in both Washington and Moscow who believed in the value of collective security, international cooperation and the United Nations. Neither George H.W. Bush nor Mikhail Gorbachev made the UN the central element of their respective foreign polices. But both saw it as an important and useful adjunct.

This was the international context in which Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a classic state-on-state aggression of the kind the UN Charter explicit anticipated, but which has become something of a rarity today. Contemporary threats to peace more typically come from insurgencies, civil wars, genocides and state and non-state terrorism. That shift in the sources of violence helps explain some of the U.N.’s most conspicuous failures in the early and mid-1990’s – in Angola, in Cambodia, and, as most readers of this article know far better than I, in the Balkan wars spawned by the fracturing of the former Yugoslavia.

A more fundamental explanation lies in the lack of constructive consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council to take strong military action against the primary local threats to peace. In Angola, that meant the South African- (and formerly US-)backed UNITA guerrillas, in Cambodia, the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge (who also previously enjoyed diplomatic backing by the United States), and in the Balkans, the Bosnian Serb forces backed by a Belgrade government enjoying the on-again, off-again diplomatic sympathies of Russia, Britain and France. In all three cases, effective UN action to stop the killing proved impossible. Again in Kosovo in 1998 – 99, effective UN action was again prevented by Russian support for Serbia, contributing to the unfortunate precedent of bypassing the Security Council for NATO.

A far more grievous blow to the U.N.’s prestige, authority and legitimacy was struck in 2003 by George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq over the opposition of most of the Security Council and before U.N. weapons inspectors completed their work. That was a destructive act from which the UN has yet to recover, and probably will not for years to come. It turned the Security Council from a mandatory to an optional stop on the road to war. And it undercut the authority of the Secretariat – particularly the Secretary-General and his special representatives, as international bargainers and peace-makers.

Syria would have been a tough challenge under any circumstances, with Russia and China giving external cover to Damascus and so many divergent interests at play within Syria itself. But the legacy of Iraq makes it harder for Secretary General Ban and his representatives to compel Syrian attention and reduces the moral pressure on Russia and China to join an international consensus.

Time alone will not restore the United Nations to its earlier effectiveness. It will also require changed attitudes by national governments. Only sustained interest and pressure from global civil society can bring that about.

If today’s renationalizing trend is allowed to persist, the UN will not thrive and issues like climate change, non-proliferation and crisis prevention will not be effectively addressed. Our futures will be bleaker, deadlier and less healthy than they could be. But that is where we now seem headed.

David C. Unger,

Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna

Posted in Columns.