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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Tuesday, 11 July 2006
The UN
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 hereâs 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 letâs 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.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:42 PM EDT
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Sunday, 12 March 2006
Inside the Head of Saddam Hussein
Topic: Foreign Policy

  Slobodan Milosevic has died.  I guess the fact that he - unlike Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - died in prison counts as something of a victory.  I was hoping for a conviction so as to at least introduce the possibility that perpetrators of genocide would be held responsible for their crimes.  But word from his trial was that an acquittal was a real possibility, so I guess it's good that he died before the world was forced to swallow that monstrous verdict.

  There was also an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about how Saddam Hussein was more worried about the threats posed by the Shiites and Iran than by the threat posed by the U.S.  This was still true even as the U.S. invasion was beginning.  There are a thousand interesting things about this article, but I think the most interesting things relate to the implications that this information has for how we should think about nuclear proliferation.

  There's an ongoing debate in International Relations about whether nuclear weapons make the world more or less stable.  Most people reflexively assume that nuclear weapons make things less stable, and that seems intuitive.  But the argument that nuclear weapons promote stability has some powerful evidence supporting it, namely that there has never been a war (not just a nuclear exchange, but even a war) between two nuclear powers.  Furthermore, the logic behind the argument makes sense; nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, and rational actors recognize that it is in their interest to avoid escalating a conflict with a nuclear power.  To get both sides of this argument in a nutshell, I recommend reading this book.

  While I understand and respect the "nukes = stability" argument (i.e., nuclear proliferation is not so bad and possibly even good), I generally fall on the "nukes = instability" (i.e., nuclear proliferation is generally bad and possibly disastrous) side of the argument.  The reason is this: we cannot assume that those who possess nukes will act rationally.  Now, IR nerds will want to drag me into a debate about the meaning of the word "rational" and attempt to demonstrate how instrumental rationality can explain actions including and beyond the ones that Hussein took in the run-up to the war, but I'm going to cut that debate off by saying that a liberal definition of rationality makes it possible to categorize any action as rational.  When I use the phrase "rational actor", I mean that that actor is not only pursuing their own interests, but also that that actor is at least minimally competent at recognizing which actions will and will not help him or her achieve those interests.  And what I take away from the NY Times article is this: Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor.

  It's hard to imagine things working out much worse for Hussein; he was ousted from power, went into hiding, was caught, is now on trial, and will almost certainly be executed or permanently jailed.  I've often though that if he had played his cards differently - if he had publicly abandoned his WMD programs and played ball with the UN - Bush wouldn't have had significant public or congressional support for the war, and Hussein might still be in power today.  But, as it happened, Hussein - who already had a reputation as a chronic miscalculator (see: invasion of Kuwait) - miscalculated so badly that his worst-case scenario ultimately came to pass.  Which I find very disturbing: here we have actual evidence of the way in which a head of state might have such a distorted view of reality that he vastly underestimates a very real threat to his security, thus rendering the assumed deterrent effect ineffective.

  Without a deterrent effect, nuclear stability theory breaks down.  More disturbing still, the two states we worry about most when discussing nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran) are both led by guys who have a propensity for the same sort of paranoid delusion that led to Hussein's downfall.  North Korea is already nuclear, and it seems that we might not be able to stop Iran from someday going nuclear.  I worry that the people who shape our foreign policy often don't take paranoid delusion - by not only the leaders of states but by general populations as well - into account as much as they sometimes should.  People who identify themselves a "realists" often claim that constructivists and liberal institutionalists see the world as they would like it to be, not as it is.  That might be a fair criticism, but it should also be recognized that the assumption that the world is comprised of rational actors is likely as fanciful as any of the assumptions made by other schools of thought.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:45 PM EST
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