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Looking for the Sheriff

Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report

by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, 257 pp.


In 1942, only a few months after the United States had entered World War II, as Hitler plunged deeper into Russia and Japan was advancing victoriously throughout the Pacific, President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and his deputy, Sumner Welles, along with many politicians, journalists, and academics, were already involved in a debate on postwar arrangements. Many of the proposals were far-reaching, even revolutionary. In no other country did the shock of war create such a response at a time when the Nazis and the Japanese were still clearly winning. Such activities contrast strikingly with the negativism and lack of verve that now, in our peaceful time, characterize the discussion, when there is any, of international organization for the future.

At the end of the war, apart from the usual xenophobes and isolationists, relatively few voices questioned the need for the new international system. On the contrary, there was a tendency to oversell it and to create unrealistic hopes for its effectiveness. Thus when the cold war—along with the usual tendency of sovereign states to quarrel and resort to violence—shattered the dream of a more rational world, public disillusion and hostility to the UN grew all the fiercer. In fact, the UN has never quite recovered from its failure to live up to its advance notices.

Already in 1942 there were warning voices. Professor Nicholas Spykman of Yale wrote that “plans for far-reaching changes in the character of international society are an intellectual by-product of all great wars,” but they have never altered “the fundamental power patterns.” Spykman predicted that the new postwar order would remain “a world of power politics in which the interest of the United States will continue to demand the preservation of a balance of power in Europe and Asia.”1

How right he was. “Fundamental power patterns” and “power politics” have dominated the international scene and, virtually since its inception, have greatly limited the anticipated role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security. The work and the thinking of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration in setting up the UN have therefore attracted relatively little attention. In FDR and the Creation of the UN Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley give a fascinating account of those efforts, one that is of particular interest today when the role of the United States, the “single surviving superpower,” in international affairs and at the UN is a matter of paramount importance.


Since the birth of the League of Nations in 1919, a residual isolationism in the United States has periodically inhibited the struggle to build even a minimally effective world organization. Franklin Roosevelt knew well that he needed political support to confront isolationist opinion. In 1941, for example, with Winston Churchill on the cruiser Augusta in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, for the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt deleted the phrase “effective international organization” from the text in deference to the still dominant isolationist mood in the Congress, even though the substance of the Charter broke with isolationism.

As the war dragged on and the outlook for the allies began to brighten, the nation gradually swung to internationalism. In Washington the powerful senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Tom Connally of Texas were converted to the idea that there should be some sort of international organization after the war. From what amounted to a running debate between Roosevelt and Churchill, the shape of the future international configuration of power began to emerge, and soon enough discussions began with the Soviet Union, China, and other countries. Roosevelt’s concept of a world organization was not idealistic. It was a pragmatic system based on the primacy of the strong—a “trusteeship of the powerful,” as he then called it, or, as he put it later, “the Four Policemen.” The concept was, as Vandenberg noted in his diary in April 1944, “anything but a wild-eyed internationalist dream of a world state…. It is based virtually on a four-power alliance.” Eventually this proved to be both the potential strength and the actual weakness of the future UN, an organization theoretically based on a concert of great powers whose own mutual hostility, as it turned out, was itself the greatest potential threat to world peace.

Roosevelt was determined to secure the plans for the future international order before peacetime public opinion in the United States reverted to isolationism, as he was convinced it would. For this reason he insisted that the San Francisco Conference on the United Nations, which he did not live to attend, be held before the end of the war. He also had to resolve the constitutional question of United States commitment which, twenty-five years earlier, had bedeviled Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to take the United States into the League of Nations. Article 10 of the League Covenant imposed on its members the obligation to “preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the league.” But could the president order American troops into action under a collective security agreement without congressional concurrence? This question, combined with dislike of an arrangement which might soon again involve the United States in a war far from home, was the main obstacle on which Wilson’s fight to bring the United States into the League foundered in the Senate.

So, in 1944, the question was: Could the future UN Security Council order American troops into battle in defense of international peace and security? The American veto in the Security Council would ensure that this could not happen if the president objected, but if he agreed to US involvement, would specific congressional authorization—by no means a sure thing—also be required? Or did the UN Charter supersede the US Constitution?

Hoopes and Brinkley describe how the United Nations Participation Act of 1945 got around this problem. The act authorized the United States to commit limited forces through agreements previously approved by Congress, as provided for in Article 43 of the Charter, which states that governments will make forces available to the Security Council under special agreements. If larger forces were required, the president would have to get a further authorization from the Congress. 2

During the 1944 election, before the candidates tacitly agreed to keep the issue of future international organization out of the debate, Roosevelt was attacked for his alleged willingness to surrender US sovereignty to the UN as well as for promoting “Four-Power imperialism,” as Thomas Dewey charged. The New York Times, on the other hand, reluctantly endorsed FDR because of his clear commitment to a strong United Nations. Roosevelt’s victory was, among other things, a mandate for US participation in the new world organization and a rejection of isolationism. In July 1945 the Senate ratified the UN Charter by eighty-nine votes to two, the two Senators in opposition, William Langer of North Dakota and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, denouncing the UN as an “unlawful superstate.”


Roosevelt’s postwar planners did not anticipate the forty-year cold war; nor was it reflected in the process which culminated in the signing of the UN Charter by fifty nations in San Francisco in June 1945. It soon became clear, however, that the very basis of the Charter, the wartime alliance (the “Four Policemen”), and the unanimity of the five permanent members of the Security Council was already becoming obsolete. In fact, the first complaint before the Council, in March 1946, concerned the failure of the Soviet Union to evacuate its troops from Iran. It was quickly followed by Soviet counteraccusations against the European colonial powers. All too soon the Council became an East-West battleground.

An Olympian Security Council, carrying on where the victorious wartime alliance left off, quickly proved to be a dream. From the start the United Nations, as Stanley Meisler shows in his recent book, had to operate pragmatically on political assumptions very different from those envisaged by its founders.

The Charter turned out to be a surprisingly practical document. While setting forth principles and aims for international cooperation, it also provided for a number of ways in which the UN could serve in an emergency as a forum of last resort, as a face-saver, and, if necessary, as a scapegoat. Such functions proved to be essential on many occasions during the cold war, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Africa, or the subcontinent. The organization’s contribution as a catalyst for major global issues also turned out to be greater than originally expected. Decolonization, human rights, women’s rights, economic development, protection of the environment, and the problem of population—these are only a few of the issues that the UN has brought to international attention. Meisler rightly says, “It could boast a distinguished and action-packed history,” even if it was not what the founders had in mind.

In 1946 the United States was the most powerful country on earth, the sole nuclear power, as well as the instigator and main executor of an enormous effort, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to put the war-shattered world back together. Despite the frustrations of the incipient cold war, the US continued to try to make the world organization work in accordance with the Charter, and it was undoubtedly the one government that was indispensable to making it work at all. The UN also served the United States as a means of sharing responsibility in handling controversial questions such as the future of Palestine, and in giving US foreign policy the stamp of international approval.

When the British dumped the Palestine question on the UN in 1947, the United States was adamant that it should be dealt with through the General Assembly and the Security Council and later on strongly supported the work of the UN mediator in Palestine. The first mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, negotiated the ceasefire in the first Arab-Israeli war, and after he was assassinated by the Stern Gang, his successor, Ralph Bunche, negotiated the armistice agreements between Israel and her Arab neighbors. However, the mediator’s detailed plan for an overall settlement of the Palestine question based on the General Assembly’s 1947 partition resolution never came near to acceptance.

In 1950 President Truman had better luck. He adroitly exploited the Soviets’ absence from the Security Council—in protest against the UN’s exclusion of Communist China—to secure UN authorization for forceful resistance under United States leadership to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. In 1956 President Eisenhower opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez expedition as a violation of the UN Charter and later insisted on the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai as a matter of principle under the Charter. In 1958 Eisenhower used a UN military observer group as the pretext for withdrawing the ill-advised US landing in Lebanon. When, in 1960, the newly independent government of the Congo appealed for US military intervention to expel the Belgian forces that had returned in response to the violence that followed independence, Eisenhower was able to stand aside and refer its leaders to the UN.

In serious cold war matters the UN was usually little more than a sideshow. Still, it could serve as an outlet for public indignation. When, as with the tragic 1956 Hungarian revolt or the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the United States found it inexpedient to intervene in the Soviet sphere of influence, a spirited protest in the UN—followed by castigation in the press of the pusillanimity and ineffectiveness of the world organization—sometimes created a useful diversion. It also made public much detailed information about Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. In the Cuban missile crisis the Security Council provided a platform for exposing the nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union had secretly installed in Cuba.

In peace and security matters during the cold war, the main value of the UN lay in containing regional conflicts and preventing them from setting off an East-West confrontation in combustible parts of the world. These efforts to contain conflicts by setting up peacekeeping operations, guaranteeing ceasefires, and providing buffer zones between conflicting parties were an important contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East, the subcontinent, Cyprus, and the Congo—all regions with a potential for worsening the tensions between East and West. The United States enthusiastically supported the new technique of “peacekeeping,” although, as a permanent member of the Security Council, it did not provide troops.

Meanwhile, another geopolitical development, decolonization, was having unanticipated repercussions on the relations between the UN and the United States. During the war, the US, to the indignation of the European colonial powers, had maintained that decolonization was a worthy aim and a logical outcome of an Allied victory and should be an objective of the Charter. After Indian independence in 1947, the process of decolonization was more rapid than anyone had foreseen, and by the late 1960s the flood of newly independent member states had radically changed the voting balance at the United Nations, as well as the organization’s priorities. By the early 1970s the so-called third world had an automatic voting majority in the General Assembly and was not shy about using it in radical, and often anti-Western, causes.

The rhetorical activism of the third world’s adolescent years was a major factor in the United States’ disillusionment with the United Nations. Often encouraged by the Soviet Union, third world advocacy of an anti-Western “new international economic order,” and particularly the equation of Zionism with racism and other anti-Israel measures, evoked increasing hostility in Washington and destroyed the bipartisan support in the US Congress that had been one of the mainstays of the UN. From being the adored creation of the world’s most powerful country, the UN had become, in the minds of many in Washington, an irresponsible, spendthrift gang of anti-American foreigners.


The cold war prevented the resurgence of isolationism which Roosevelt and Cordell Hull were convinced would follow the end of World War II. The perceived Soviet threat gave rise to a form of American internationalism that included not only alliances like NATO but also active support for at least some parts of the UN, especially its peacekeeping and other security measures. The sudden end of both the cold war and the Soviet Union had some unexpected consequences. One was a resurgence, in a new form, of American isolationism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a few years ago:

The United States will never—unless Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has his way—return to the classical isolationism of no “entangling alliances.” It will continue to accept international political, economic, and military commitments unprecedented in its history. It will even enlarge some, as in the curious mania to expand NATO…. But such enlargement hinges on the assumption that other nations will do as we tell them. The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave, and it has taken the new form of unilateralism.3

Before this new mood set in, however, there was a brief and very different interlude. A burst of euphoria attended the end of the cold war and the apparent success of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, which had demonstrated among other things that the UN Security Council could, at last, agree to take action on critical issues. There was heady talk of a “new world order” (George Bush) and, a little later, of “assertive multilateralism” (Madeleine Albright and others).

In the United Nations this mood of international activism had far-reaching and not always positive consequences. The Security Council, enthusiastically led by the United States, committed the UN to involvement in Angola, Somalia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Mozambique, Georgia, and elsewhere. In doing this, the Council took very little account of the fact that these interventions differed radically from the peacekeeping operations of the past, which were concerned with containing conflict between consenting states rather than with pacifying warlords, gangsters, and factional and ethnic leaders fighting within the boundaries of a single state.

The UN has virtually no infrastructure for emergency operations. During the operations I have mentioned it had no office for contingency planning. Nor did it have adequate military training programs, logistical facilities, rapid reaction capacity, military command and staff arrangements, or financial reserves. Most governments do not want the UN to have such standing capacities, which might give it elements of supranational sovereignty and would, in any case, be expensive. For its peacekeeping operations the UN must depend on the willingness of governments to commit their soldiers to serve under UN command in often violent situations having little or nothing to do with their own national security interests. The traditional mandates for peacekeeping voted by the Security Council during the cold war—mandates that did not allow the use of force—usually applied to governments which had already agreed to stop fighting. They were not workable in the violent anarchy of Bosnia or Somalia. Moreover, political consensus on action in controversial questions like Bosnia—and now Iraq—is often difficult to sustain in the Security Council. As a result the UN’s mandates are often weak or ambiguous.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the UN’s performance during the period of “assertive multilateralism” of the early 1990s was mixed and that three of its thirteen new operations—Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda—were seen as failures. Perhaps it is more remarkable that the others, in such troubled places as Cambodia or Angola, based on an extraordinary degree of improvisation, were relatively successful. In all the harsh judgments that have since been made, the Security Council and its leading members, who, after all, originated all of these operations, have so far escaped most of the recriminations. (An important exception is Mark Danner’s magisterial series on Bosnia in these pages, which makes clear the failures of US and European policy.4 ) Obviously, when things went wrong, it was easier to blame Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali or the military and civilian UN commanders in the field than to scrutinize the weak original mandates for action and the timid and often confused guidance provided by the Security Council.

There was little excuse for ignoring all previous experience and plunging a UN peacekeeping operation, with no authority to use effective force, into a full-scale war in Bosnia. But gruesome images on TV provoked a public demand for action. The leading European powers in NATO were unwilling to intervene forcefully, whether through NATO or otherwise, as long as the United States refused to allow its own troops to be deployed while the fighting was going on. The substitute for forceful NATO action was a UN “peacekeeping”—i.e., nonforceful—force. The Security Council never provided either the clear mandate or the size and type of UN force that were essential if such a difficult undertaking was to have any hope of succeeding. Later on, the Council compounded these errors by proclaiming six “safe areas” and then refusing to authorize either a strong mandate or the 35,000 troops which the Secretary-General considered necessary to defend them. The result was a great tragedy—Srebrenica—and an international scandal.

Somalia was another case of good intentions, muddled mandates, and dilatory execution. The basic problem was, as Adam Roberts has pointed out,5 that the operation there never had a clear overall purpose. The aim of feeding starving Somalis was soon confused with strategies to address the country’s political chaos. The Somalia intervention had far-reaching consequences, for it was the main reason for the 180-degree turn in US policy on UN operations, from “assertive multilateralism” to a virtual refusal to accept any new UN peacekeeping operations at all.

It is still seldom recognized that the ill-fated raid by US Rangers to capture General Mohammed Aidid in Mogadishu was conceived and commanded exclusively by the United States without the prior knowledge of the United Nations—or even of senior US officers in the UN headquarters in Mogadishu. This was a disaster for the United States—not to mention for many Somalis. And it was devastating for the UN. The searing televised footage of a dead American helicopter pilot being dragged through the streets created a major backlash in Washington—a backlash that often took the form of furious recriminations against the UN, although the organization had nothing to do with the ill-conceived raid. The UN command had to take emergency action to rescue the American soldiers. The episode could be said to have marked the end, as far as Washington was concerned, of “assertive multilateralism” through the United Nations.

The reaction to the Rangers debacle led directly to a third major UN failure—in Rwanda.6 When, on April 6, 1994, the aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, this set off the violence that led to the genocide of some 800,000 people and the displacement of two and a half million more, in a population of some eight million. The UN already had a substantial peacekeeping force of 2500 in Rwanda. But its Belgian contingent withdrew in late April after ten of its members were tortured and killed by Hutu irregulars. (As one commentator wrote in these pages, “The Belgians were killed in such a monstrous way precisely to provoke the remaining foreigners into flight so that the génocidaires could get on with their killing.”7 )

By the early summer of 1994, the US policy of avoiding any risk in UN operations had taken hold, and the Security Council not only refused to strengthen the UN force in Rwanda, but cravenly reduced it. The commander of that force, General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, has maintained that even with one or two thousand trained troops he could have done much to reduce the widespread violence.8 Months later, public reaction to the horrific atrocities finally forced the governments on the Security Council into action—but it was far too late. Four years later, the calamitous repercussions of the Council’s failure to act in time continue to destabilize the African Great Lakes region. What is more, the credibility of the UN as a practical force for peace and human security has been further eroded.


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. 1

    From America’s Strategy in World Politics, quoted in Hoopes and Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the UN, p. 56.

  2. 2

    For a discussion of the constitutional issue, see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Back to the Womb?” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, pp. 4-5. Article 43 had been the US and British an-swer to the Soviet proposal of an integrated world police force—a concept that would have given the UN an unacceptable degree of supranational authority. Later on the cold war froze Article 43, which has never been implemented.

  3. 3

    Back to the Womb?” p. 5.

  4. 4

    The most recent installment, “Slouching Toward Dayton,” appeared in the April 23, 1998, issue.

  5. 5

    Not a Prototype for World Government,” Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, p. 27.

  6. 6

    See Barbara Crossette, “Why Washington and the World Largely Failed to Head Off the Bloodbath,” The New York Times, March 25, 1998.

  7. 7

    See “Rwanda: the Big Risk” by David Rieff, The New York Review, October 31, 1996, p. 74.

  8. 8

    In a recent report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict (Preventing Genocide—How the Early Use of Force Might Have Succeeded in Rwanda), Scott R. Feil concludes that a modern force of 5000 soldiers, deployed between April 7 and 21, 1994, could have significantly altered the outcome.

  9. 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.

  10. 10

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

  11. 11

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

  12. 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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