The Price of War


Thanks to the end of the cold war, the society of states finds itself in the condition that had been mistakenly expected by the drafters of the United Nations Charter. For forty-five years, the paralysis of the Security Council prevented the Charter provisions on collective security from being carried out. In the Gulf crisis provoked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Security Council has at last performed exactly as it had been designed to do. Indeed, the Bush administration has repeatedly presented the crisis as a test whose outcome will shape the future of collective security and determine whether the UN will be able to play the important role that Gorbachev, in his famous speech before the General Assembly in December 1988, had requested for the world organization. But we should have no illusions about how easy or rosy that future will be, even if the current coalition prevails over Saddam Hussein; and American policy in the Gulf crisis may well make the task of the UN in years to come much more difficult.

In the world as it has emerged from the cold war, the restraining influence of the superpowers over their respective clients is gone. Old rivalries among states remain explosive: in Kashmir, or in Cyprus, or, of course, in the Middle East. Domestic turmoil, caused by ethnic or religious minorities, will provoke external interventions. Disruptions caused by economic hardships, famines, poverty, tyranny, and civil war may result in colossal migrations and flights of refugees. No single nation will be capable of playing world policeman—hence the importance of the UN.

But will the UN be able to police the globe? There are two reasons for skepticism. One is that some of the factors that led to the fiasco of collective security in the past have not disappeared along with the cold war. The UN has never found it easy to cope with violent internal conflicts. No doubt the Soviet-American rivalry made the crisis of the former Belgian Congo in 1960 more dangerous, but its complexities and factional battles would have been too much for the organization in any case. The Charter’s Chapter VII on collective security was drafted by people who had the 1930s in mind. They wanted the Security Council to be able to deal firmly and promptly with aggressors who sent forces across well-established borders in order to violate the territorial integrity and political independence of their neighbors. But it turned out that the model of aggression did not fit the realities of the postwar world, and in this respect, the Iraqi case may be atypical. For there are many instances (as in Kashmir, or in the Arab-Israeli dispute) where it is the border that is at stake in the conflict or where there has been such a succession of crises that it is hard to identify who violated whose border first, or to distinguish the defender from the aggressor. In several of these instances, the Security Council has preferred to use the much…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.