National Sovereignty and International Law

"Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World" by David L. Bosco, Oxford University Press, 2009

John Bolton, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has described President Barack Obama as "the US President most enamored of international law, and the Security Council".  In his campaign for the White House, the President was harshly critical of what he called America's unilateralism during the Bush years.  In turning over a new leaf, the President promised to work more with allies, open dialogue with former enemies (dialogue presumably would turn them from enemies to former enemies), and participate as a full partner in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.  As made clear in "Five to Rule Them All," David Bosco's history of the Security Council, in his tenure as the United Nations Ambassador during the last decade, and earlier in the State Department under the first President Bush, John Bolton held the United Nations in far lower regard.  Bosco's book, a balanced and generally non-ideological history of the Security Council (a rare achievement in today's super heated partisan wars over most everything)  comes out somewhere in between the two positions of Obama and Bolton as to the organization's and the Security Council's effectiveness or lack thereof. 

The United Nations Security Council is the pre-eminent international organization.  The UN, formed out of the ashes of World War 2 (near 60 million deaths), and the failure of the League of Nations, was designed to create a more stable, peaceful world. The victors in the war, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, created the structure for the new international body, to include a General Assembly, where all the nations would be represented, and a Security Council wherein the real power would reside, including military enforcement mechanisms.   Within the Security Council, five nations -- the three founding partners,  plus France and China (then a tottering US ally under Chiang Kai-Shek), would have permanent seats, and veto power.  Six other member nations at a time would serve two year terms.  In 1949, Mao Tse Tung's Communists won control of mainland China, and Chiang fled to Taiwan, but continued to hold China's UN and Security Council seats.

At its start, the UN was dominated by western nations, even in the General
Assembly, hard as that may now be to imagine.  The Soviet Union and its allies were outnumbered in the first decades of the Cold War, and the Soviets used the veto in the Security Council over 100 times before the first US Security Council veto ever occurred. With the end of colonialism in Africa and Asia and the birth of dozens of new nations in the next two decades, the UN changed dramatically in its orientation.  The new member states joined what became known as the Non-Aligned Movement, led by Egypt's Nasser, Yugoslavia's Tito, and India's Nehru. This group became less and less sympathetic to American objectives in the United Nations, and challenged the big powers and in particular, western dominance of the Security Council.  Since two of the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain and France) had been major colonial powers in Africa and Asia, these attitudes were not surprising.  The Soviets played to this group, which became most aggressive on the subject of  the apartheid practices of South Africa  and Israel's  hold on territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War (for many states the real opposition was to Israel's existence).  The United States became Israel's protector on the Security Council, vetoing   resolutions that were imbalanced, or harshly critical of the Jewish state, and discouraging others from passage with threat of a veto.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its "satellites" in Eastern Europe, the bi-polar nature of the Security Council changed. China's seat in the UN and the Security Council had been awarded to mainland China, with Taiwan banished from the organization in 1971, but China played a far less assertive role in diplomacy or use of the veto than the Soviets (more often abstaining than siding with one party in a contentious fight in the Council). Among the more than 150 UN members without a permanent seat on the Security Council, the attacks on the hegemony of the five increased.  The Security Council, in response, increased its non-permanent membership from 6 to 10, but the five powers resisted efforts to add new permanent members (without a veto power), or to increase the Council size to 25 .  This was in part to preserve the power of the five but also to improve the chances of having a workable sized group to make decisions that are binding as international law in the Security Council, as opposed to the preening and posturing that are routine at the General Assembly's annual gab fest.   Japan, Germany, Brazil and India were among the nations that due to their size or economic power, sought permanent member status on the Security Council. Some EU nations, such as Italy, recommended that there be one permanent EU member with a veto on the Council, that seat to rotate.  France greeted that suggestion as warmly as it did Italy's  victory in penalty kicks over France in the last World Cup final in 2006.

Clearly, the nations of the world see the Security Council as far more meaningful than the General Assembly, and there is both prestige and power associated with participation and membership. Bosco's book lays out a history of UN Security Council action and inaction, from Korea in 1950 to Iraq in 2003, that more often than not, is a pretty dismal history, at least in terms of maintaining international peace and security, the overriding goal of both the UN and the Security Council.  The greatest failures have often come with the tens of thousands of "peacekeepers" sent to assist various failed states, or address humanitarian crises -- Somalia, Darfur, Rwanda, Srebenica in the former Yugoslavia.  What is the function of a peacekeeper?  What can they do to keep the peace?  Where there is peace (agreed on by the former warring parties), the peacekeeper's role has been relatively easy. Where there is not- the peacekeepers have often been driven out, and slaughters have followed. Nations and warring factions within nations have often ignored the UN Security Council mandates and directives, challenging its legitimacy as a governing body.

But Bosco offers a defense of the Security Council that is worth considering. He points to the fact that the five permanent members have never faced each other in armed conflicts since the creation of the Security Council. Certainly, there have been proxy wars between allies of permanent members.  During the Korean War , when the US faced off with China , the China it was fighting was not a member of the UN or on the Security Council.  Bosco argues that because the permanent members are with each other in the same room, and can meet and discuss hot issues both formally and informally, this has often led to a certain cooling off between the great powers during tense moments, particularly during the Cold War era. He points to the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, as points when the major powers -- the US and the Soviet Union -- escalated their rhetoric, but pulled back from the brink, and from threats of using force.

There is I think, an alternative explanation for the avoidance of war between the great powers. The permanent members of the Security Council are all nuclear powers (China on replacing Taiwan).  All five nations are rational with regard to these weapons -- none of them  want to become involved in a military conflict  with another nuclear power, in which both sides could resort to nuclear weapons if the war escalated. There are no Dr. Strangeloves on the Council.  So too, the frequent wars between India and Pakistan seem to have calmed a bit since both sides became nuclear powers. The hate is still there, but neither side wants tens of millions of casualties, or to become radioactive failed states. 

This would suggest that President Obama's insistent push for a nuclear free world, is both naïve and dangerous, unless one desires a reprise of the world before 1945, a recipe for bringing back many more armed conflicts between the great powers of the world, without the deterrence from each side's nuclear capability that mitigates against armed conflict between them.  Of course, none of the other leaders of  the current nuclear nations seem to share Obama's delusional utopianism of the wonders of a nuclear free world. Were there no nuclear capability residing in any of the permanent members of the Council, I am not so sure that the ability for the great powers to meet and dialogue would have been enough to prevent fighting between them the last 64 years.

Of course, nations states participate in international bodies not to give up their sovereignty, but to protect it, and at crucial moments, to give  a veneer of international legitimacy to their actions.  The US was determined to use military force in the first Gulf War, and again after 9/11 to remove the Taliban and strike Al Qaeda, and finally to remove Saddam Hussein, the last by far the most controversial action. Bosco provides a detailed case history of the US strategy and tactics to obtain Security Council support for our impending actions in these three instances,  which we were determined to pursue in any case.

The nuclear issue is, I think, critical to the future functioning of the UN and the Security Council. Will a rogue state such as Iran succeed in becoming a nuclear power? The preliminary deal supposedly worked out last week with the Group of 6, ignores Iran's direct violation of a UN resolution (1696) passed in 2006, which required Iran to suspend all enrichment activities. Now we all agree they violated this resolution, and what are the consequences?   Will Iran be a rational actor if they complete their nuclear weapons program? How would they leverage their new power to pursue their interests in the Muslim world, against Israel, and in the region? If Pakistan's nuclear weapons or nuclear knowhow and fuel were to fall to Al Qaeda, mightn't the rational policy for this group then be to use them?   When you are pro-apocalypse, the debates in the Security Council and all the resolutions in the world, might not accomplish much in terms of changing your plans.

Bosco makes a good case that the world has been a bit safer due to the existence of the Council, than had it never been created. But very big tests remain ahead.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.