Robert Skidelsky
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At last, a power of sense at the UN
Robert Skidelsky
The Times | Monday, March 28, 2005

 
LIBERALS ON both sides of the Atlantic are dismayed by President Bush’s nomination of the arch-hawk John Bolton as US representative to the UN. They are wrong; Bolton’s appointment may give the UN just the shot in the arm it needs. It promises serious US interest in UN reform; it challenges the UN to get serious.
 
The UN needs not more liberalism but more relevance. Its charter, the custodian of international law, was fashioned to deal with a much narrower set of threats than now exist. Today, in an age of transnational terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the sole superpower, the United States, is strongly tempted to ignore the charter and “break the law”.
 
But the US lacks both legitimacy and resources to be the sole world policeman. In international relations, as in domestic affairs, power has to be limited if it is not to become intolerable. A world in which the US alone makes and enforces the rules will dissolve into violent anarchy — Iraq writ large.
 
Statesmen of the old school have an old answer: the balance of power. But there is no world balance of power today, though there might be in the future. The French idea that Europe should act as a “counter-weight” to the US is a pipedream.
 
The other disadvantage of relying on one superpower is that a conflict might be too small or far away for it to notice, in which case terrible things happen unchecked. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is one instance. The genocide in Darfur and the monstrous rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are today’s examples. There must be some division of policing based on geography, commitment and capability.
 
If power and law are to be reconnected, the first requirement is to update international law. The UN was set up to provide collective security against aggression. National sovereignty was its core legal doctrine. This is now inadequate, since many threats to peace arise from failed states that cannot provide basic security for their own people. There are 25 or so of these in the world, mainly in Africa. Failed states produce terrorism, genocide and mass starvation that affront the conscience of mankind.
 
The recent report of Kofi Annan’s high-level panel on threats, challenges and change has broadened the concept of security to embrace collective action against poverty, disease, environmental degradation, civil war and genocide, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and international crime.
 
Most striking is its endorsement of the principle of an international obligation to protect the innocent. This equips the UN with a conception of the right to intervene that goes beyond the strict interpretation of the charter. It thus lays the juridical basis of a new international law, in which the doctrine of national sovereignty is qualified by a “behaviour test”. This should go some way to satisfying the US that the UN will not neglect American security concerns, especially if one can get an agreed definition of terrorism, as the UN Secretary-General has urged.
 
It is still unclear how the power to intervene is to be legally activated but the two main determinants are resources and capabilities.
 
The ten largest economies in the world — the US, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, China, India, Brazil and Russia — control 70 per cent of world GDP.
 
It is not a country’s total resources, total military expenditure (headed by the US) or total armed forces (headed by China) which matter, but the amount of these available for purposes of intervention at a distance. We may think of an intervention force as one capable of moving rapidly from one part of the world to another to support a mandate for peacemaking. The list of countries with such a capacity is again headed by America, with its 380,000 Marines. France and Britain are the only other countries with a transcontinental deployment capacity, though India and Brazil could conceivably develop one.
 
This discussion of military capacity should be refined, but it is unlikely to upset the broad conclusion that the power to provide security is confined to about half a dozen countries in the world, individually or in combination.
 
The trick is to get these concentrations of economic and military power firmly embedded in the UN system. This points the way to reform. The main criteria for an expanded permanent membership of the Security Council should be resources and intervention capabilities. This means adding Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. The permanent membership of the Security Council would then become the executive organ of the G10. One should never forget that the original basis of the Security Council was a permanent military alliance of the then great powers to keep the peace.
 
Secondly, the time has surely come to activate Article 44 of the charter, which calls on members to “hold immediately available national . . . contingents for combined international enforcement action”.
 
One such integrated force exists — Nato. Nato was the agent of UN intervention in Kosovo, and to some extent in Afghanistan. Its evolving mission could be a model for other standby “human security” forces in other regions.
 
These three reforms — in international law, membership of the Security Council and creating standby forces — would help to reinsert the UN into the international relations of the future. They will be criticised for emphasising power at the expense of consent. This, I think, is a misreading. Consent is necessary for legitimacy, but only a few have the power to act.
 
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