The US and the UN: A Realist's Perspective (2002)

The discourse over what to do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has once again focused national and international attention on the role of the United Nations in American Foreign Policy. Perhaps to simplify the viewpoint that one hears in the US media about the United Nations, the UN is either a proto-world government dominated by poor countries seeking to subvert US sovereignty or it is a beacon of international law and global governance. What we rarely hear, but what is closer to the truth, is that the UN is a system of Intergovernmental Organizations that, when it matters, are largely dominated by developed states in general and the United States in particular. This dominance naturally includes the Security Council because its decisions "matter." I will return to the role of the UN in the Iraqi discussion below, but first I would like to explain why the UN Security Council (UNSC) is something other than the institution that the political extremes in this country usually depict.

The SC's decisions are legally binding on all Member States. The US is a Member State, so UNSC decisions are binding on it. Does this realize Woodrow Wilson's dream of a "collective security" system in which war would be deterred by a universal coalition of states who are obligated to take action against an aggressor? The US Senate thoroughly opposed this provision of the League of Nations because it would have subverted Congress' constitutional prerogative to declare war. The United States thus rejected the League and subsequently adopted a policy of isolationism to avoid entanglement in foreign wars and to protect its sovereignty. After the Second World War, both the League of Nations and the policy of isolationism were roundly vilified and abandoned. In their places came the United Nations and the policy of globalism. The UNSC does not attempt to recreate a universal Collective Security system based on a consensus or a mandatory response. Instead it is a small body composed of fifteen states that seemingly allow no action if any one of five permanent members fails to vote positively or abstain on a proposed action. This is the so-called veto, though the word is not in the UN Charter. Despite the fact that SC decisions are binding on the US, the US can, and often does, veto SC decisions that it does not favor. We cannot be required to do what we do not want to do. Full stop.

However, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and, France also wield the veto. Surely this means that either one of these states or a coalition of nine of the other Council members can prevent the United States from taking any military action it deems necessary. But is this true? Some legal experts and some states indeed argue that only the SC can sanction the use of force in international affairs, so perhaps the argument has merit. After all, the UN Charter does say that "the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace...and shall...decide what measures shall be maintain or restore international peace and security." (Article 39, Chapter Seven) While this may sound definitive, it is not. Every Middle School Model UNer in America knows that the Charter also says two other things. Article 51 says that "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member State" and Article 52 is perhaps even more permissive in that it says "[n]othing in the present Charter precludes the existence of regional arrangements ...for dealing with matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security as are appropriate...provided that such ...activities are consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations." States can and do use force without UN sanction.

During the Cold War, Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Viet Nam, Grenada, and many other military actions occurred by coalitions of states acting either without Security Council prior approval or despite subsequent vetoes by a Permanent Member (USSR). Yes, the US led, but there was always a coalition. Since the Cold War ended, the US has taken military action in Panama and Kosovo without UN prior approval, and it has threatened the use of force against China on behalf of Taiwan without reference to the UN. The actions in Iraq in 1990/91 and in Bosnia 1995 occurred with SC involvement, but in both cases the SC action bolstered shaky US public opinion to support its Government's wishes. Contrary to conservative pundits' assertions, the SC acted in accordance with the US Administration's wishes in these cases, not against it. The same is true in Somalia, despite the criticism the Clinton Administration later asserted. In no way did any of this constitute the beginning of a" new world order" and in no way has the US been severely limited in its behavior. The argument may be whether it should have been.

Is Iraq 2002 different? Let's put the issue in context. The current President Bush as presidential candidate did not have kind things to say about President Clinton's foreign policy. One of Bush's critiques was that Clinton relied too heavily on multilateralism. His Administration would not be constrained by the UN as had been Clinton's. If what I said above is true, Bush's assertion may have been a tiny bit exaggeration. Still, when the Administration assumed office, it did not withdraw US peacekeeping forces from Bosnia or Kosovo (as they had campaigned) and after 9/11it paid our UN dues in full. Also after 9/11, the Administration immediately sought and received a Security Council resolution (1373) justifying the use of force against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, as the Administration addressed Iraq over the spring and summer of 2002, it asserted the right to act unilaterally, insisted that a new SC resolution was unnecessary since previous resolutions had not been observed, and rhetorically bullied other states either to be for us or against us on Iraq. Then lo and behold, the President went before the General Assembly on September 12 to link US action to a SC resolution demanding the resumption of inspections in Iraq or else force would be necessary. Once the US went down the UN path, the Administration and the President stated "over and over and over again" that if the UN would not disarm Iraq, the US and its allies would. Then on November 8 the SC passed resolution 1441 by a 15-0 vote. The US had compromised its earlier positions and the other SC states had compromised theirs. Whether Iraq will disarm or whether war will occur is unknown at this writing. The point is that the Administration ultimately chose not to ignore the UN and not to act unilaterally. Why?

Conservative muckrakers and liberal activists be damned, the UN is a human institution that reflects the power realities of the international system. The US is the most powerful state in the system right now. Even the US cannot act alone, however, and so the UN can help legitimize US policies through the SC or else we can walk away from it. The countless votes we lose in the General Assembly mean little because they do not require Member States' compliance. In other specialized Agencies of the UN there is weighted voting where the US and its rich allies dominate the rules and voting. That is why Globalization bashers wish to reform the Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, and even the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US, however, can pursue its policies in the bodies and can argue its cases vigorously within them. It can also alter those policies when allies, logic, and decency force it to compromise. I usually agree with Winston Churchill that the world can always rely on the US to do the right thing--after it has exhausted all the alternatives. The UN is where the alternatives can be discussed and where diplomacy can be exercised. And, according to the historical record, for good or for ill, the US usually prevails.

Shelton L. Williams Jno. D. Moseley Chair of Government and Public Policy