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The Effectiveness of the UN Security Council

Discussant: Joshua Muravchik
Updated: September 29, 2006

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The UN Security Council is criticized by many sides for failing to carry through its mandate as the world’s leading collective security body. It is assailed by some for failing to act resolutely to halt what the United States has termed genocide in Darfur and to sanction Iran for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program. Others say it is a tool of Washington and other Western powers that neglects the security concerns of the poor and dispossessed. Many agree its structure is an anachronism, with permanent, veto-holding members reflecting the post-World War II power structure.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of a recent book urging sweeping UN reforms, and Lee Feinstein, a CFR senior fellow who guided congressional and CFR task forces on the United Nations, debate the effectiveness of the UN Security Council as a modern collective security body.

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Lee Feinstein

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September 29, 2006

Lee Feinstein

Josh argues that the Security Council is a “straightjacket” whose very existence “inhibits” other more productive forms of international cooperation. Josh disproves his own point by listing the range of institutions and informal arrangements, from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Contadora, which have sprung up alongside the United Nations since its founding. 

Josh earlier decries the failure of the Security Council to enforce its resolutions, referring to a “batch requiring Saddam Hussein to divest himself fully and transparently of various weapons.” At last check, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite a relentless search by the United Nations and the United States, supported by satellite information from a sleepless White House.

But Josh is correct when he says of the Security Council, “Nations that complain about the unfairness of the arrangement have a point.” The Security Council needs to be fairer if it is to be more effective, which is why expansion is imperative.  A recent UN panel (PDF) offered two feasible options.

But fairness is not everything. You could say that the League of Nations or the Articles of Confederation were “fairer” than what replaced them. But the issue is not direct democracy. The issue is balancing effectiveness, legitimacy, and rights. That is the essence of the UN bargain: veto power on the Security Council; one country, one vote in the General Assembly; and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in parallel with the UN Charter. This “arrangement” needs to be revised, not abandoned.

Josh says defenders of the council implicitly argue that the alternative is “unilateralism.” I’m not sure who these “defenders” are, but none of them has ever occupied the White House and, to my knowledge, none has ever won a seat in the Congress. Congressional alarmism on the other side, however, has inhibited genuine debate of the kind that Josh and, hopefully, I have engaged in this week.

The real debate is a prosaic one. What should be the role for the Security Council and the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy? Josh has addressed this with clarity and force in his book,and I have offered my views recently.

The United Nations can and has been relevant in addressing first-order security concerns. Relying on the United Nations as the exclusive option, however, is unrealistic and, in cases of inaction, at times immoral. The choice cannot simply be the United Nations, unilateralism, or doing nothing. There can and must be other choices.


Joshua Muravchik

September 28, 2006

Joshua Muravchik

My description of the limits of UN peacekeeping is not from the Cold War but from Kofi Annan’s formula of the mid-1990s. If that has “no bearing on what the Security Council does,” then what does it do? To say that UN peacekeeping has a high budget and many personnel is not an answer. 

Patrolling the streets of Haiti, Congo, and the like is a worthy mission. It is fine to have an international mechanism to do it. But it is dangerous to entrust big issues of world peace—terrorism, nuclear proliferation, etc.—to a body that is more often paralytic or capricious than effective.

Lee proposes that the Security Council will have proved its mettle if it stanches the bloodletting in Darfur and makes possible an “enduring resolution” to Lebanon. To defend the council on grounds of such hypothetical accomplishments is to admit that the body has few actual accomplishments to its credit. In other words, if the council begins to succeed at the kind of challenge at which it has usually failed, it will become a valuable institution. Don’t hold your breath.

In light of the council’s execrable record, the implicit argument of its defenders is that the alternative is “unilateralism,” an image of America isolating itself or running roughshod over others. But that is wrong.

The alternative to the council is a world in which diplomacy is more freeform and where institutions are smaller and less formal. In contrast to the bloody twentieth century, the nineteenth looks like an oasis of peace, a peace largely preserved by the informal Concert of Europe. And the absence of a third world war during the second half of the twentieth century was owing not at all to the United Nations, whose main purpose was to prevent such a war, but in large part to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a small organization with more modest purposes, and America’s other alliances.

The alternative to the council is not a world in which America goes it alone, but a world in which states can cooperate and ally on the basis of common interests, values or tasks, e.g. the Contadora group, the “contact group,” the “quartet,” the Iran or North Korea negotiating consortia, or the coalitions that fought in Korea, Kuwait, or Iraq.

The Security Council does not facilitate such cooperation but inhibits it. It is artificial and a straightjacket. The nations that complain about the unfairness of the arrangement have a point.


Lee Feinstein

September 27, 2006

Lee Feinstein

Josh says UN peacekeepers help with "only a small selection of international problems" and they embark on missions only "where the parties have made a clear commitment not to fight." Quaint.

Josh's note harks back to the Cold War, when UN peacekeeping operations were few and relegated to narrow and largely symbolic missions of monitoring, investigation, and reporting. Josh may wish to refresh his browser with this chart, updated regularly, by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

The logic that peacekeepers should only be dispatched when there is a peace to keep is compelling. It also has no bearing on what the Security Council does. If and when the United Nations takes over for the African Union in Darfur and other operations expand in Burundi and elsewhere, the United Nations peacekeeping budget is expected to reach $7.5 billion, supporting over 100,000 troops. Only the United States has more troops in the field.  

At least as significant as the number of peacekeepers is the difficult job assigned to them in such places as Haiti, Congo, and yes, southern Lebanon. Josh is correct that the forces in Lebanon cannot possibly fulfill the flawed and ambiguous mandate negotiated by the United States and France last summer. Even so, the UN operation deployed faster than expected, with some 5,000 troops now on the ground, making an Israeli withdrawal possible by next week, and creating time and political space for a more enduring resolution. Josh alludes to the disastrous (and well documented) case of Srebrenica. I would add Rwanda to the list of terrible failures and, to a lesser degree, East Timor and Sierra Leone. Yet, it is a long time since the traumatic peacekeeping failures of the 1990s. A recent RAND report concludes the United Nations' performance in nation-building missions stacks up well against the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Josh wishes the United Nations had "less legitimacy." Unfortunately, the caustic attacks on the legitimacy of the United Nations by certain world leaders at the General Assembly last week suggest Josh may be getting his wish. Conservatives understandably worry about the Security Council's "stamp of legitimacy" and how it could affect or erode American power. This is a principled but ultimately abstract concern, especially given the acute dangers we now face. UN and American legitimacy do not grow in inverse proportion. With diplomatic skill and effort they might even be reinforcing.


Joshua Muravchik

September 26, 2006

Joshua Muravchik

Lee thinks I slay a straw man when I measure the Security Council against the purposes of the Charter. Fair enough. The Security Council might have accomplished useful things even if they amounted to less than the UN founders envisioned.  But has it?

Lee cites the recent resolution 1701 providing for a cease-fire in Lebanon. The number, however, means that there have been 1,700 previous resolutions? What did they accomplish? How many of them does anyone remember? I can remember a batch requiring Saddam Hussein to divest himself fully and transparently of various weapons. I can recall resolution 1559, one of the best, that, inter alia, required disarmament of Hezbollah. Had it been enforced there would not have been resolution 1701, because there would have been no war in Lebanon this summer. And what are the chances that 1701, which also requires disarmament of Hezbollah, will be enforced? Already the parties on the ground are making clear they will not enforce it, and Sheikh Nasrallah boasts that he has 20,000 missiles that no one will take away.

Lee mentions UN peacekeeping operations. Here is one area in which some good has undeniably been accomplished. But let's recall its limits. In the 1990s, the United Nations attempted to quell internecine conflicts. This led to a string of disasters culminating in Srebrenica, a massacre the United Nations actually facilitated by gathering the victims together, disarming them, and then refusing pleas for the return of their arms as their predators closed in. This led [then UN peacekeeping chief] Kofi Annan to proclaim: "Peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no cease-fire or peace agreement." 

The missions on which the United Nations now embarks are only those where the parties have made a clear commitment not to fight, and UN forces serve mainly to verify that each side is living up to its obligations. This is certainly a useful activity, but it helps with only a small selection of international problems.

Lee is right that the UN Security Council bears "the stamp of legitimacy." But this is not something it has earned, and thus not to its credit. Rather, it is a terrible problem. Given that three utterly selfish states exercise vetoes, the Security Council is a capricious entity. On any given issue, there is no reason to assume the council will act with an eye to the commonweal. Better that it had less legitimacy.


Lee Feinstein

September 25, 2006

Lee Feinstein

Josh says it is not much of an exaggeration to conclude that the Security Council has “never done anything useful.” His argument rests on the fact that the establishment of the Security Council did not somehow usher in a period of world peace or, as the UN Charter grandly states, “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”  

Josh’s main beef seems to be that the Security Council has not lived up to the flawed concept of its founders. On this historical point, he is certainly correct. The Military Staff Committee envisioned in Article 47 of the Charter and the entire military apparatus have been “a dead letter from the start.” And, he might have added: Good thing, too. 

But Josh’s critique of the 61-year old UN framework says very little about how the Security Council operates today. The original concept may be “hopelessly flawed,” but no one, apart from a few world federalists, any longer embraces this concept. Instead of focusing on the last century, let’s focus on this one. 

The reality is that in the United States neither Democrat nor Republican looks to the UN Security Council as the exclusive or principal institution for advancing U.S. foreign policy goals or interests. 

The reality is also that for much of the world, the UN has carried the stamp of legitimacy and consensus. In this respect a decision by the United Nations, including the legally binding decisions of the Security Council under Chapter VII, may be more acceptable to other governments than pressure from any single nation or group of nations. That is why Israel and Lebanon and the United States and Europe all turned to the Security Council to pass a resolution establishing a buffer zone, however imperfect, in southern Lebanon. (I have discussed the flaws of the UNIFIL mandate elsewhere.)

The Security Council is also no longer the hamstrung institution of the Cold War. The UN now deploys some 70,000 forces in sixteen countries on five continents. Its military operations are second only to the overseas deployments of the United States. The quality of troops is uneven, and UN peacekeepers are still saddled with Security Council mandates they cannot possibly fulfill. But the picture is much improved from the traumatic period of the 1990s. 

None of this excuses the Security Council’s fecklessness in the face of the slow-motion ethnic cleansing in Darfur. We can debate that tomorrow.


Joshua Muravchik

September 25, 2006

Joshua Muravchik

It would be an exaggeration to say that in sixty-plus years the UN Security Council has never done anything useful, but not much of one. 

The council's essential purpose was to uphold peace, and at that it has been an abject failure.  The member states were each to have placed units at the disposal of the council and under the command of the military staff committee. This mighty army was to have enforced peace. The entire apparatus has been a dead letter from the start.

Only twice in the history of the United Nations has the Security Council acted against an aggressor to restore peace, as the founders envisioned. The occasions were Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-1991. Each time the council acted not under the provisions of the UN Charter for enforcing peace but under Article 51, the provision of the Charter designed for cases in which the council is unable to act or fails to do so and which reserves to the members the right of self-defense. In effect, the council said, "Yankee, go to," and the United States organized a posse.

For most of the history of the United Nations, the Security Council’s failure was attributable to the Cold War, which kept the institution in a state of paralysis. But the Cold War's end brought only modest improvement in the body's performance. The acid test was the Serbian attack on Bosnia in the spring of 1992. Here was a pint-sized problem well within the means of the council to address. Not only did it fail, it even violated the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.  The council slapped an arms embargo on both sides—the well-armed aggressor and the ill-equipped defender, in effect binding the lamb for slaughter. Only three years and a quarter of a million lost lives later was this harm undone.

"The entire plan" of the United Nations, explained Secretary of State Cordell Hull, rested on the premise that the permanent members of the Security Council would "consider themselves morally bound ... to cooperate with each other ... in maintaining the peace."  States, however, act on interest more than morality. Some allow an admixture of morality to tincture their policies. The United States and the United Kingdom are two that do so. The other three permanent members, however, follow foreign policies of pure egoism, untainted by any trace of morality. All three have vetoes. This is a hopelessly flawed arrangement.

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