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Looking for the Sheriff


Although fighting is still going on in several regions of the world, the international scene has been relatively quiet for the past three years, and calls for international leadership and decisiveness are correspondingly few. The nearest the world has come to major hostilities was the possibility, in February 1998, of air strikes against Iraq as that country obstructed UN inspectors searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. This potentially very serious crisis was resolved, for the time being at any rate, by the direct intervention of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The demands of this unusual situation created a new combination of responses that bear close examination. The UN inspectors had no doubt that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, could pose a serious potential danger; yet the Iraqis were interfering with their efforts to establish the facts. The United States, under a Security Council resolution but with diminished international support, put together a formidable strike force in the Gulf and appeared to be on the point of using it. At this critical moment Secretary-General Annan went to Baghdad, saw Saddam Hussein, and negotiated an agreement to allow the inspections to proceed. Richard Butler, the head of the inspectors, and others report that the situation has, so far, markedly improved, and they have been able to visit sites that were previously closed. It will be interesting to see whether variants on this combination of UN and US action will be effective in dealing with future threats to international peace and human security.

The end of the cold war revealed the serious weaknesses and limitations of what is optimistically called the international system. In a world where the United States is unquestionably the leading political, military, and economic power, there is a temptation—and many have not resisted it—to conclude that a benevolent US hegemony would save a great deal of trouble and probably be more efficient than any serious form of international action. But recent events have demonstrated the very real limits of US influence, and exposed the dangers of showing the US as impotent and lacking in international support. This prospect, combined with the domestic hostility to yielding authority to international organizations or to other nations, has eroded Washington’s support for international institutions, a trend exemplified by the continued refusal of the Congress to pay one and a half billion dollars of past dues to the United Nations.

In The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War, Richard Haass thoughtfully discusses this situation from the point of view of American foreign policy. He sees the world after the cold war, when it was dominated by two great powers and disciplined by the threat of nuclear weapons, as being in an age of “deregulation” in which there are many small threats to peace and order. The United States is clearly the predominant nation in such a world, and thus the main question for American foreign policy is, as Haass puts it, how “to bridge the gap between the demands of regulating a deregulated world and a society reluctant to play the role of sheriff.”

Haass rejects standard approaches to foreign policy as simplistic. Isolationism is an anachronism based on false premises and misconceptions. Global hegemony is “simply beyond our means.” The United States must decide what interests and problems are of real importance and might realistically be advanced by American intervention. Unilateralism is “neither wise nor sustainable,” in view both of the domestic situation in which the US is reluctant to act entirely alone and of an international situation in which America’s ability to have its own way will diminish. In the confused conditions of the post-cold war world, in which there is no clearly defined enemy, alliances are far less relevant. A concert of great powers, such as Roosevelt envisaged in his notion of the “Four Policemen,” is just as far-fetched and unrealistic in the present deregulated world as it proved to be during the cold war.

Nor does Haass see “institutionalism”—relying on the existing system of international organizations—as an adequate answer. The ambition to “put in place machinery for coping with a wide range of global problems, from classic aggression to failed states,” presents enormous difficulties, as is now very evident. Governments continue to fret about their national sovereignty and balk at providing international organizations with the authority and the resources they would need to be really effective. Moreover, to organize a consistently reliable international response to serious crises would require a degree of agreement among the great powers that they are most unlikely to achieve.

Haass believes that a scaled-down form of multilateralism, in which governments would be helped to pursue their own interests through UN cooperation when their interests converge, would be both more realistic and more desirable. “Peacekeeping and purely humanitarian operations,” Haass writes,

come to mind. In both instances, the context is consensual and the demands on military capability modest. This is the sort of operation the United Nations has carried out effectively for decades and should continue doing. Such a division of labor would free up US forces for more demanding peacemaking and combat operations and for situations where politics are sure to preclude the emergence of an international consensus.

The UN’s organization of elections in Cambodia and its efforts to impose some order over the chaos of Angola and to help bring Namibia to independence are examples of the sort of intervention he would favor. Haass believes that in many instances the United States will have to act as sheriff, putting together posses as needed—the intervention leading to the Dayton agreements would be an example of this—and that American leadership and participation will be indispensable. This means, of course, that the United States will have to maintain not only the necessary means to act, but also the necessary will.


History tends to be unsparing of societies that fail to meet the challenges they could and should have dealt with when the challenges were still relatively small,” Haass writes. Only weeks ago the predominant international worry was the state of Asian economies and the crisis in Indonesia. Now the world has new cause for anxiety—the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, which raise the possibility of nuclear war in the subcontinent and threaten the erosion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the United States has yet to ratify) and of the entire effort to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, nuclear weapons.

Such a situation urgently poses the question whether a weak, divided, and underfinanced international system, supplemented from time to time by a reluctant sheriff and occasionally his posse, will be enough to protect us from future disasters, including nuclear proliferation and war, the use of other weapons of mass destruction, bloody internal wars and genocide, and vast human suffering from environmental and other man-made damage. More than ever it is clear that there is a large hole in this ramshackle international structure—the absence of consistent and effective international authority in vital international matters. As the recent statements by politicians in the subcontinent once again show, the very notion of international authority is anathema to many governments great and small until they are looking disaster in the face, by which time it is usually too late for useful international action.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, we live, for the first time in recorded history, in a world without empires in the conventional sense. The so-called “international community,” comprising some 190 independent sovereign states, doesn’t yet have the essential elements of a community, and is often unable to carry out common actions on behalf of peace. It is often said that because of modern communications people in these 190 countries are likely to have information in common about international disasters and threats to peace—but that information is not enough to create a “community.”

Certainly a concert of great powers, as envisaged by FDR, is unlikely to be acceptable in this newly liberated world, even supposing the more powerful states themselves were able to reach a sufficient consensus to create it. Richard Haass’s “deregulated” world is also a place where emerging new powers are flexing their muscles and cautiously testing their strength. While the political trends in these countries tend to be nationalistic, the globalization of finance, trade, communication, and other vital human activities is steadily eroding much of the traditional basis of national sovereignty, and the actual power of governments as well. Paradoxically, the UN, often denounced as the enemy of national sovereignty, is the place where it is most jealously defended.

However much the world has changed, preventing deadly conflict, especially involving nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, must take precedence over other goals. Nations with many millions of desperately poor people still persist in arming themselves at enormous expense and even in entering costly nuclear arms races—as India and Pakistan are now doing. Nationalistic politics and the bluster of politicians are certainly an important element contributing to this tendency, but a basic cause is a sense of insecurity. The “international community,” unlike well-governed national communities, is not a secure place. The householder in a well-run state does not need to arm himself against his neighbor, however hostile. The law and the authority of the state protects and reassures him. That is not the case in the “international community.”

Hardly anyone now recalls that a primary objective of the UN Charter was disarmament, without which the founders believed that the UN’s system of collective security could not work. This system was based on a concert of great powers which did not exist in reality, and the goal of disarmament was quickly submerged in the cold war arms race. Thus the possibility of a collective security system on which governments could rely, and of the worldwide acceptance of disarmament that would have made it possible, vanished and has not reappeared.

For the most part, international law and authority do not yet provide the basis for a reliable system of international security, and it would be well to discard any illusions to the contrary. Despite much high-minded rhetoric, the obsession with national sovereignty still deters governments from making international law and authority a working reality. Even occasional moves in this direction, like the current effort to establish an International Criminal Court, are regarded with suspicion and are in any case extremely limited in scope.

International authority tends to be exercised only after the disaster has occurred, as in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or in retrospect, as with the war crimes tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda. For all the profusion of new international law, there are relatively few international agreements or regimes in which compliance can be enforced. The enforcement of international conventions is largely left to national authorities. Even the resolutions of the UN Security Council, which are in theory mandatory, are often ignored or rejected by those to whom they are addressed.

Occasionally a major act of aggression in a sensitive region—like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—evokes a forceful and unanimous international response, but lesser or more gradual threats to peace and security, while they may incur disapproval, provoke no action. In the absence of a constitutional, legally enforceable international system, it is thus scarcely surprising that governments take their security into their own hands at great cost and sometimes behave, as India and Pakistan have recently done, in ways that arouse shock and fear in the rest of the world. Even the world’s most powerful country, the United States, cannot prevent such moves, short of using an unacceptable degree of force or pressure.

It is often said that preventing conflict is far better than tackling it after it has started.9 In fact, much of traditional diplomacy is an attempt to prevent conflict. Conflict prevention is a major part of the work of the UN Secretary-General and the primary function of the UN Security Council and of most regional organizations, whether NATO or ASEAN or the OAS and the OAU. Much of this preventive work has borne fruit over the years, but its failures have always attracted more attention than its successes. A conflict prevented is not news, and often not even a provable historical episode. In 1970, Iran laid claim to Bahrain, then a British protectorate in the Persian Gulf from which the British were about to withdraw. UN Secretary-General U Thant organized negotiations over the island’s contested status that turned out to be entirely successful and were concluded by a UN report to the effect that the inhabitants of Bahrain wanted independence, which they got. No one took much notice.

As U Thant said at the time, the perfect preventive operation “is one which is not heard of until it is successfully concluded, or even never heard of at all.”10 Successful preventive action depends on a number of factors, among them the parties’ susceptibility to reason, the ability to convince them that they will not jeopardize their future security if they refrain from conflict, and the likelihood of severe retribution for starting a fight. These elements were not present in sufficient strength to dissuade Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait in 1990. Nor, evidently, did they have sufficient influence on the Indian and Pakistani governments when they decided to embark on their recent nuclear tests.

Present international arrangements do not provide the kind of guarantees and protection that will persuade governments to delegate their national security to an international system, although governments usually appeal to the United Nations when they feel threatened—and sometimes it responds effectively.

An international community rudely awakened by recent events in the subcontinent needs to think seriously about future security arrangements. The easiest but least responsible approach is to conclude that a reliable international security system is now politically unattainable and that sacrificing national sovereignty, as well as providing adequate resources, is too high a price to pay for such a system in the years ahead. The other approach—much more difficult and laborious—is to work for the international consensus that will eventually allow governments to move beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty toward a constitutional system of international responsibility, at least in matters involving deadly conflict and human survival. Unless there is a new world catastrophe, this will certainly take a long time. There will be much opposition, many failures, and probably more than a few disasters.

We might also recall, however, some of the international developments that would have seemed inconceivable fifty years ago. Respect for human rights is now embodied in a series of international conventions which set standards that governments find it increasingly difficult to ignore. Humanitarian intervention in several states—Northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda—has made some inroads against claims of inviolable national sovereignty. International peacekeeping is an accepted way of using military forces nonviolently in order to control conflict and provide the climate for peaceful solutions. The Law of the Sea Treaty regulates national conduct on the seas and oceans of the world and seeks to protect their natural resources. Western Europe is now formally organized as a community.

The United Nations monitors, and sometimes organizes, national elections, as in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Namibia, Liberia, or Eastern Slavonia. Environmental laws concerning such dangers as global warming are increasingly embodied in a wide variety of international conventions and in national legislation as well. In a series of conferences on global problems—the environment, population, natural resources, women’s rights, to name only a few—the UN has sought with some success to make people aware of such neglected issues and to do something about them. These advances and many others argue strongly against the all-too-fashionable idea that international organization is going nowhere.

In a world that still lacks a reliable system for security, can the leadership of one nation, however powerful and benevolent, be enough? The tendency to wait for the United States to act as a leader in international emergencies—whether in the Gulf, the Middle East, the Pacific, Bosnia, Somalia, or the subcontinent—is one of the odder elements of the post-cold war period. Other nations, and especially emerging powers, are bound to be increasingly suspicious of leadership by a single superpower, and it is far from certain whether American citizens themselves want their country to be the one that other countries always depend on to take the initiative. The question of who will organize international emergency action when the United States is unwilling to do so remains unanswered. Regional powers have occasionally been active locally. Nigeria, for example, has intervened in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but its own domestic practices have been undemocratic,11 and it has been accused of wanting to dominate its neighbors. In other regions rivalry and suspicion tend to inhibit action by regional powers.

Who has power and authority in the world today? The United Nations more often than not has been on the sidelines during the acute formative phase of a crisis and it has, at present, very limited capacity to shape events and avoid disasters. We have seen recently that the real power of the United States is more limited than most observers expected. As William Pfaff pointed out in a syndicated column written before the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, “The belief that America as ‘sole superpower’ would or could dominate the world, widely held after Communism’s collapse, rested on the illusion that military and economic power directly translate into political power, and that power is identical with authority. The exercise of authority requires consent, and rests on a moral position.”

So far we have been lucky in avoiding a world war with nuclear weapons, but we should acknowledge the many failures, as well as some successes, in preventing human disasters since World War II. International intervention could not stop such murderously destructive conflicts as those between Iran and Iraq and those within such countries as Afghanistan, Sudan, or Guatemala, to name only a few. The United Nations and the United States failed to deter Saddam Hussein from occupying Kuwait, but they succeeded in ejecting him from the territory he conquered and have spent eight years in the effort to deprive him of weapons of mass destruction. After the US and the Western nations failed for years to stop the killing in Bosnia, the US finally brought about the Dayton accords; but as the fighting in Kosovo shows, the region continues to be full of danger.

The United Nations and the world’s governments failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda, but they have continued to help the survivors and are bringing some of those responsible for the horrors to some sort of justice. The United States, and almost everyone else, failed to anticipate the Indian nuclear tests or to dissuade Pakistan from following suit, and it is not yet clear to what extent the subcontinent, and the world, have moved into a more dangerous period as a result. In these and countless other cases the record is mixed, but the results have not been so disastrous as to force us either to reject the possibility of devising mechanisms that will ensure peace, security, and human survival or to take the radical steps necessary to do so.

At the moment there is no great urge to discuss these matters, let alone to put forward plans for something better. The prevailing mood suggests that we should keep our fingers crossed, hope that the future will bring no shattering emergencies or surprises, and encourage as far as possible step-by-step improvements in international arrangements. It will be a long, slow, frustrating process, but apparently it is the best we can hope for. Nearly forty years ago, in a speech on a constitutional frame for international cooperation, Dag Hammarskjold, who gave a lot of thought to such matters, wrote:

Working at the edge of the development of human society is to work on the brink of the unknown. Much of what is done will one day prove to have been of little avail. That is no excuse for the failure to act in accordance with our best understanding, in recognition of its limits but with faith in the ultimate result of the creative evolution in which it is our privilege to cooperate.12

June 18, 1998

  1. 9

    The recent report of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, chaired by Cyrus Vance and David Hamburg, provides a comprehensive analysis of the origins of conflict and the possibilities of prevention. It also spells out how different groups—governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, religious, scientific, educational, business, and financial groups, and the media—might help prevent conflict.

  2. 10

    Speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, June 15, 1970.

  3. 11

    It is not yet clear whether the death of President Abacha on June 8 will provide some hope of change.

  4. 12

    The Development of a Constitutional Framework for International Cooperation,” address at the dedication of the new law buildings of the University of Chicago Law School, May 1, 1960.

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