WHILE SOON-TO-BE U.N. Ambassador John Bolton patiently endures
rhetorical broadsides from Barbara Boxer, Joseph Biden, and their Senate
colleagues for his alleged "disdain of the United Nations," it is
worthwhile to pause and reflect on the merits and the track record of the
U.N. security system. The United Nations is a diverse organization of many
functions, but it was created for one primary purpose. As stated in the
U.N. Charter's preamble, the organization was formed to "save
succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and to "maintain
international peace and security." It is accordingly by such a
standard that the United Nations' effectiveness must be judged.
United Nations enthusiasts often point to the fact that no general war
between great powers has commenced during the U.N. era. Indeed, global
conventional conflicts on the scale of World War I and World War II have
not scarred the earth in the six decades since the writing of the U.N.
Charter. While such restraint can be greatly attributed to the bipolarity
of the Cold War, the deterrent effect of mutual assured destruction, and
the subsequent emergence of American hegemony, proponents of the U.N.
system can at least claim a correlative relation between the international
body and the current enduring era of peace among the world's great powers.
Proponents of the UN can also point to the emergence of a global culture
that condemns wars of aggression and imperialism. In the pre-World War I
era, wars of limited expansion, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1871,
and ambitious land-grabs, such as the European "scramble for
Africa," were seen as entirely legitimate. Today such actions would be
nearly universally condemned. In the contemporary chorus of popular
opinion, Otto von Bismarck's calculated wars would not be heralded as great
statesmanship, but rather denounced as detestable aggression.
This shift in global opinion was notably present in 1991. When Saddam
Hussein's army poured over Kuwait's sovereign border to seize Kuwaiti
oilfields, the United Nations and much of the world declared his actions
illegal. This marked a substantial victory for those who had sought to
de-legitimize aggressive military action and augment collective security.
When the United States and its allies invaded to repulse the Iraqi
aggressors, they were bolstered by the moral approbation of much of the
world, as well as U.N. Security Council's approval. Many optimistically
thought that a new post-Cold War era of collective security had finally
THIS OPTIMISM, however, would soon be shattered by the reality of
geopolitics. While the "global community" mostly rose to defend
Kuwait in 1991, it has largely failed to collectively defend anything
since. Immediately following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein massacred his own
Shiite and Kurdish populations while the United Nations stood by. In 1994,
the United Nations did nothing while 800,000 people were hacked to death by
machete-wielding Rwandans. Following that, the United Nations failed to act
against a European genocide, when Slobodan Milosevic decided to ethnically
cleanse Yugoslavia. In the final reckoning, the 1990s should have proved a
sad disappointment to the U.N. faithful. Much as political and strategic
rivalry side-lined the United Nations throughout the Cold War, so would
self-interested considerations continue to obstruct U.N.-based collective
security in the post-Cold War era.
WHEN AL QAEDA attacked on September 11, 2001, it momentarily appeared
that another era of collective consensus had emerged. Leaders across the
world denounced al Qaeda's actions and the U.N. Security Council authorized
America's military response against the al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime
Yet, mimicking the Gulf War, this "authorization" revealed a
distinct and familiar role for both the United States and the United
Nations--namely, that of football team and marching band. While both the
Gulf War and Afghanistan are heralded as moments of effective collective
security at work, it is important to see them for what they are--moments of
international approval accompanying the U.S. military's punishment of a
rogue nation. In both cases of "U.N. success," it was the United
States and its allies that restored "international peace and
security," not the U.N. Security Council working in its collective
After permitting the United States to defend itself in Afghanistan, the
United Nations has switched roles from that of cheerleader to that of
heckler. When America continued pursuing the war on terror by deposing
Saddam Hussein (after 12 years of ineffective U.N. Security Council
resolutions) the United Nations put its foot down. Permanent Security
Council members China, Russia, and France refused to endorse the mission to
eliminate the Baathist threat in Iraq. Indeed, they went a step further,
and sought to prevent the United States from taking military action.
It was a watershed moment in America's relationship with the
international body it helped create. While the United Nations had proven
largely ornamental in previous international crises, it was now proving
decidedly obstructionist and hostile towards American strategic aims. While
respecting a self-aggrandizing council is tolerable, paying obeisance to a
hostile paper tiger is far less so.
SINCE ITS 2003 Iraq war antics, the United Nations has slid further down
the slippery slope. It has continued to sit idly by in the face of grave
security threats. The world now faces a nuclear North Korea, and barring an
unforeseen development, a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. The world has witnessed
the U.N.'s failure to prevent an African genocide (again), with 70,000
people perishing in the Sudanese province of Darfur. In the case of the
Israeli security barrier, the United Nations has actually encouraged
terrorist aggression. Its International Court of Justice ruled Israel's
security fence illegal, in spite of four-year running "intifada"
which has left thousands dead. Indeed, by seeking to deter those who would
build a barrier in the face of terrorism, the United Nations has managed to
almost perfectly pervert Edmund Burke's enduring principle--in the face of
evil, the United Nations encourages good men to stand aside and do nothing.
If John Bolton does harbor some disdain towards the recent actions of
the United Nations, it is important to view that disdain with some
perspective. When a heretofore paper tiger begins undermining and opposing
the foreign policy actions of the one nation which has consistently fought
to ensure global peace and security, a little ambassadorial disdain may
perhaps be in order.
Michael Brandon McClellan is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He
runs the blog Port
Correction appended, 4/18/05: The article originally said, a four-year
running intifada had left thousands of Israeli citizens dead. More than
4,000 Palestinians and Israelis have died during the intifada.