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Learning from the Gulf


Within the UN, the end of the cold war has had its most immediate effect on the work of the Security Council. The Council has been able to make notable progress in peace-making and peace-keeping tasks which had languished during the cold war—for example, in Namibia, Afghanistan, the Iran–Iraq War, Cambodia, Central America, and Western Sahara. Now the Iraq–Kuwait crisis, to which the UN has made an unprecedentedly firm and united response, is putting to the test, as well as raising questions about, the concept of collective security itself.

The United Nations has so far not provided a system for peace and security so much as a last resort, or safety net. Sometimes it was able to mount a peace-keeping force as a kind of sheriff’s posse when things had already got out of hand. The question is whether, in the new international climate, the nations of the world are capable of the effort—and expenditure—to create and maintain a system based on vigilance, consensus, common interest, collective action, and international law. Ideally such a system would keep a permanent watch on international peace and security around the world, preempt or prevent conflict, mediate disputes, assure the protection of the weak, and deal authoritatively with aggressors or would-be aggressors.

This is a very large order. It requires, first of all, a return to the provisions of the UN Charter that were the distillation of the terrible lessons of the Second World War and of the events that led up to it, including the failure of the League of Nations.

But the creation of a reliable system for international peace and security involves more than reacting, however forcefully, to a crisis that has already happened. It requires both the creation of conditions in which peace can be maintained, and the capacity to anticipate and to prevent breaches of the peace. It requires respect for, confidence in, and, if necessary, the capacity to enforce, the decisions of the Security Council and the findings of international law. That respect and confidence were eroded in the forty years of the cold war, as has become very clear in Iraq’s response to the Security Council in the present crisis. It will take time and effort to restore respect and to make sure that confidence in the Security Council is shared by the UN members generally. Governments will also have to be prepared to support and put adequate resources behind both global and regional security systems. Peace-keeping, particularly, has until now had to be run on a shoestring.

Apart from dynamic diplomatic action, and an increasing effort to apply legal norms where these are relevant, two kinds of operational activities are required to give reality to the Security Council’s decisions. They are peace-keeping, which may be compared to the work of the police in a nation-state, and enforcement, which corresponds to the work of the military. Until recently, popular emphasis and interest lay mainly in peace-keeping, an original creation of the United Nations. The Iraq crisis has highlighted the necessity of also maintaining the capacity for enforcement and of linking the two activities.

Obviously the outcome of the Gulf crisis, whatever it is, will have an immense impact on the international system, and especially on the future of the Security Council and the UN. Even before we know that outcome, the crisis provides some useful lessons for the future.

Between August 2 and November 29, 1990, the Security Council adopted twelve resolutions on a variety of aspects of the Kuwait crisis. It imposed sanctions and an embargo, and finally authorized the use of force if Iraq did not comply with its resolutions by January 15, 1991. This decisiveness and sense of urgency were unique in the Council’s history.

Already on August 25, in Resolution 665, however, the Council, in asking states with maritime forces in the Gulf area to monitor shipping, had begun to depart from the letter of Chapter VII of the Charter (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression). Articles 46 and 47 clearly imply that enforcement measures under Chapter VII would be under the control of the Council and its Military Staff Committee (the Chiefs of Staff of the five permanent members), but no such control was provided for. On November 29, in Resolution 678, the Council went further down this divergent road in authorizing “member states cooperating with the Government of Kuwait…to use all necessary means”—i.e., the use of force—after January 15, 1991.

This tendency to diverge from the procedures of Article VII was inherent from the beginning of the crisis. While the Council acted quickly and forcefully in early August, it was not in a position to assure the security of other states in the region against possible Iraqi attack. Thus a parallel operation, under Article 51 of the Charter—which provides for the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense—and independent of Security Council decisions, was mounted under the leadership of the United States to protect Saudi Arabia. When this deployment of forces began it was the accepted wisdom among the Security Council members that sanctions and the embargo were to be the means of securing Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, and that it might well be six months or longer before they began to have a serious impact on Iraq. Later, however, when the defensive buildup in Saudi Arabia was so great as to acquire offensive capacity—particularly after the decision of the US administration on November 9 to deploy larger numbers of American forces—it began to be said that sanctions were too slow, and that if Iraq did not speedily withdraw, force would have to be used to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. This tendency culminated in Resolution 678 of November 29, setting the January 15, 1991, deadline.

The wisdom of moving from a defensive action to an offensive buildup, with a stated deadline, as opposed to relying on sanctions for a longer period, will certainly remain a matter of debate. But there were practical reasons for the divergence from the course of action set out in the UN Charter. Forty years of cold war have meant, among many other things, that the steps outlined in the Charter for providing the Security Council with standby forces to enforce its decisions have never been taken. No agreements have been concluded with member states under Article 43 to make assistance and facilities available to the Council armed forces. The Military Staff Committee, which was to assist the Council in the application of armed force, has conducted purely token meetings throughout the cold war period, and, despite recent Soviet suggestions for its revival, it is still a largely inactive body.

The very idea of a United Nations command under the Security Council, though traditionally accepted for peace-keeping operations, was never seriously considered for enforcement operations in the Gulf. Suggestions that naval or military forces in the Gulf should come under the Security Council and the Military Staff Committee were apparently regarded as unrealistic or unacceptable by the main participants in the military build-up in Saudi Arabia—even though Article 47, Section 3 of the Charter states,

The Military Staff Committee shall be responsible under the Security Council for the strategic direction of any armed forces placed at the disposal of the Security Council.

These same powers apparently never considered the possibility that the Security Council should work out arrangements for the command of forces in the Gulf, as Article 47.3 also suggests. Although in Korea in 1950 the Security Council, during the brief absence of the Soviet Union, designated the United States as the Unified Command, the Council members evidently believed that in the Gulf the designation of a command structure by the Security Council, or even the discussion of such a thing, would impede the effectiveness of the operation.

The goal of Chapter VII is action short of force, if possible. The Charter therefore places an important condition on the ultimate use of force. Article 42 states,

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 [sanctions] would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.

No determination about the inadequacy of sanctions has ever been made by the Council.

On November 29, 1990, the Council authorized the use, after January 15, 1991, of “all necessary means” by “member states cooperating with the government of Kuwait” to enforce its previous decisions. The Council thus married the resolutions it had adopted on the Gulf crisis and the forces that were gathered in Saudi Arabia under Article 51, for a future enforcement action under the political and military leadership of the United States. A main, if unspoken, objective of the Council’s authorization of November 29 was, in legitimizing forceful action, to preserve the coalition represented by military contingents to Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen how effectively this objective will be achieved if the war is long and becomes highly destructive.


In the Iraq–Kuwait case collective security has turned out to mean war on a large scale. In the present state of military technology, this is a sobering phenomenon which points urgently to the need to develop other effective methods for rolling back, or preferably preventing or preempting, aggression.

The Gulf crisis also raises many broad issues which are becoming a part of the wider concept of international security. These issues will have to be faced squarely if the present generation of international organizations is to evolve into a reliable and effective system of international security.

The most obvious of these broader issues is the urgent need for progress on arms control, on the flow of arms to sensitive regions, and on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. With the world’s annual arms bill running at about one trillion dollars a year, and with vast accretions of the most sophisticated weapons in regions as volatile as the Middle East, and elsewhere, the sudden indignation in the West about Saddam Hussein’s buildup of arms seems, at best, naive. In fact several of the industrial nations now arrayed against him were his suppliers only months ago. Will the Gulf crisis be enough to put serious and urgent purpose into some of the most important objectives of the Charter—into multilateral arms control and restraint on the world trade in arms—as well as into regional security arrangements that provide equitable security for all states? If it does not, talk about a “new world order” will remain largely rhetorical.

The most vivid image of the Gulf crisis at the moment is the picture it conveys of the face of modern war. Perhaps what we are able to see on television is misleading, for it naturally concentrates the eye on the efficiency of the coalition’s tanks, infantry, aircraft, and sea power—which attest to the wonders of modern high technology. Because the cameras do not show what happens when the bombs and missiles fall, television gives a far less vivid idea of the range, horror, and destructiveness of missiles or bombs. Nor does television give much idea of the likely ecological, political, economic, social, or other consequences of an all-out war.

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