Topic: Foreign Policy
It pains me to say this, but I feel it needs to be said: the U.N. Security Council is almost worthless.
The eighteen-year-old me would have been furious with this statement. "Don't you think there should be an international body to promote and protect world peace?" I would have asked. To which the twenty-six-year-old me responds: Yes, I do. But the UN Security Council is simply not that body. And get a haircut, hippie.
The basic problem is this, Eighteen-Year-Old Me: the UN Security Council is not a noble body inhabited by governments dedicated to protecting world peace. The nations that comprise the UNSC don't act as impartial observers; they don't objectively examine pressing issues and determine the most effective course of action. Many true believers in the UNSC badly want this to be true, so they simply imagine it to be true. But, in reality, it is not. And hereÃ¢s what it is: a body that the powerful nations of the world use to promote their self-interests.
Before I go any further, I want to make a clarification: I am writing about the UN Security Council. Frequently, I hear people say "the UN" when they mean to refer to a specific UN body. This confuses the issue; the UN has multiple parts that do different things. There is the Secretariat, which is essentially Kofi Annan's office. There is the Economic and Social Council, which does some tremendous aid work; the World Food Program and UNICEF, for example, are organized here. There is a Trusteeship Council, which takes the word "irrelevance" to a new level, as it is charged with overseeing decolonization. Then there is the General Assembly, which consists of every U.N. member nation and specializes in passing non-binding resolutions about how horrible Israel is. And, finally, there is the Security Council, which is the present manifestation of the Wilsonian ideal of collective security.
The first manifestation of collective security - the League of Nations - is widely recognized as a failure. And two reasons are commonly cited as the sources of the League of Nations' failure: 1) The U.S. did not participate, and 2) Unanimity was required to authorize military action. Together, these two characteristics made the LON wholly incapable of dealing with the issues of its time. And, unfortunately, the descendents of these characteristics are present in the descendant body of the LON. Like it's predecessor, the UNSC: 1) Is crippled by the unwillingness of the world's powers to provide for world peace, and 2) Suffers from a voting system that makes it extremely difficult to take action.
To prove that characteristic number one is true, let me ask you this: what is your opinion of the Chinese government? Do you see them as stalwart defenders of human rights? Would you feel comfortable with your human rights in their hands? No? Well, the Chinese government is part of the UNSC. A major part. Which brings us to the second reason why the UNSC is incapable of protecting world peace.
The UNSC can't act unless all five permanent members are in agreement. And, as you might guess, instances in which the Big Five are in agreement are few and far between. In fact, the UNSC has authorized the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter only three times. The first time was the Korean War, which was possible because mainland China wasn't represented (they were represented by the exiled government in Taiwan) and the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN to protest Chinas absence. The second time was the first Gulf War, at which point the disintegrating Soviet Union wasn't really participating, and China fresh off of Tiananmen Square didn't really feel like drawing attention to itself over an issue that didn't closely affect Chinese interests. The third time was the Afghan War of 2001. So, two flukes, one act against a country that had alienated everybody, and that's it. The Cambodian genocide? Nothing. The Indonesian invasion of East Timor? Nothing. The Rwandan genocide? Nothing. Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo? Nothing, again. Darfur. Nothing meaningful. Presently, the UNSC is having extreme difficulty handling two frighteningly obvious threats to world peace: Iran and North Koreas respective pursuit of nuclear weapons. How can anyone possibly think of this body as an effective protector of world peace?
The reality is, the structure of the UNSC means that, until its member countries firmly commit themselves to promoting world peace regardless of their self-interests, it will never be an effective or even kinda good protector of world peace. I applaud people who try to push their government in that direction, but letÃ¢s face reality: that isn't happening now and isn't going to start happening any time soon. And adding more permanent Security Council members (as some have proposed) is only going to make things more difficult.
In the meantime, the Big Five can use their seat on the Security Council to practice old-fashioned, Bismarkian, realpolitik. Because the Security Council can still play a role in validating (or invalidating) various actions, countries can (and often do) use their votes as leverage. Russia, for example, has made it very clear that no action will be taken with regards to Iran unless the Kremlin is somehow compensated for its pre-existing nuclear energy sales to Tehran. Deliberations within the UNSC during the run-up to the Iraq war were a classic demonstration of realist politics, with each member country (Britain possibly excepted) trying to use its position within the organization to negotiate a resolution that would validate its pre-existing, self-interested position. The US, one might remember, was quite blatantly trying to buy Chile's vote. This sad display was all too typical of the Security Council's general pattern of behavior. The reality is light years away from the image in many people's minds.
I am not saying that the UNSC is useless. Not entirely. It can be used to give international actions especially contentious ones, such as the use of force a sense of legitimacy. That's precisely what it did during the First Gulf War and the Afghan War. Furthermore, the Security Council does sometimes act more or less as intended when issues arise that don't threaten any of the Big Fives vital interests and require little significant action. So, I don't think that it should be abolished. However, it has to be noted: the role that I just described is a role entirely different than the role imagined for the UNSC by Wilsonian idealism. The role that I see for the UNSC is practical, not ideological.
I am writing all of this to explain why, when someone says: "The UN Security Council found that..." I begin to tune out. When I think about international relations - especially the use of force - I try to classify actions as either just or unjust, and the Security Council's opinion is one that I simply no longer care about. The fact that the UNSC has authorized an action does not make that action just, and the inverse is true as well. The irony is that idealists tend to love the UNSC, whereas realists generally hate it; it should be exactly the other way around. I wish that idealists would stop pretending that the UNSC is what they would like it to be and start recognizing it for what it is: a well-disguised bastion of realism in foreign policy.