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 “softer” procedure of conflict resolution of Chapter VI—procedures of negotiation and mediation which tend to treat the parties as equals, instead of treating one side as a criminal and the other as a victim. But these procedures are, inevitably, slow and frequently ineffectual, since the Security Council, in such cases, merely makes recommendations and does not back them with collective force.

The second reason is that if the main powers, including the US and the USSR, decide to allow the Security Council to play a much more active part in resolving disputes, and especially if they should want it to resort more frequently to the provisions of the Charter that ban the use and the threat of force and organize collective action against the violators, these great powers will have to stop behaving as they have behaved in the past. During the Security Council’s long paralysis, they have tolerated a large number of aggressions, either by not dealing with them at all (for example, China’s invasion of Tibet), or by merely denouncing them without taking any collective action, or by simply calling for a cease-fire (as in Iraq’s war of aggression against Iran). To be sure, many states that sent their armies across borders had grievances, as the US argued in the cases of Grenada and Panama. But the violator usually has some plausible complaints and the very purpose of the Charter was and remains to prevent those complaints from serving as pretexts for aggression. The observance of a double standard will have to cease: a lenient or permissive one when aggression is committed by oneself or one’s friends, a strict one when it is committed by a foe or by a pariah.

This double standard may have been obnoxious from the viewpoint of morality, but it had the political merit of simplifying the great powers’ task and of providing them with a compass. The problem with taking the Charter seriously is that each conflict, and especially each aggression, will require the forging of a new coalition. States used to shift alliances and reshuffle alignments in order to preserve a balance of power. Doing it in order to assure world order and the triumph of principle would amount to a diplomatic revolution. It would, at a minimum, require far more political consultation and coordination than has ever been the case except among close allies, and it will require activating the military committee of the Security Council (as the Soviets have suggested) in order to plan collective resistance to aggression; this, in turn, may require a world police force in readiness. Such events as the invasion of Tibet by China, of Timor by Indonesia, of Lebanon by Syria and Israel, and of Cyprus by the Turks could not be passed over as they have been. We would no longer be able to rely, as we have for so many years, on the interplay of unilateral moves and of alliances. Are the major powers ready for such a leap? The remarkably effective coalition put together by the US in the Gulf crisis against a state whose resort to naked aggression is undeniable may not be easily reproduced in cases that are less clear-cut or in parts of the world that are less obviously vital to the security of most states.



Moreover, the Gulf crisis may still lead to a disaster for the future of world order. The administration has emphasized, rightly, that appeasing Saddam Hussein or stopping short of the restoration of Kuwait’s independence would be such a disaster. But its own policy carries risks that are just as serious.

The Gulf crisis obliges us to face for the first time the fact that collective security may mean war. The resort to force in order to punish a crime—instead of being considered as the free choice of any sovereign state—may change the moral basis of war. It does not change its nature. In the past, even the most ambitious attempts at collective security never went beyond economic sanctions and arms embargoes. But against states that can thwart sanctions, or are unwilling to retreat unless forced to, the threat of war would have to be employed as in the present case.

However, while collective security expresses the idea that aggression anywhere is a legitimate and essential concern of the international community, this does not mean that unconditional surrender is the only way of rolling back aggression. To take such a stand would, most probably, only harden the determination of aggressors who were tough enough to have been undeterred by the threat of collective force in the first place. A policy of unconditional surrender would also severely strain whatever coalition serves as the secular arm of collective security.

It is only in the twentieth century that unconditional surrender has become the preferred way of ending major conflicts—with highly debatable results. Earlier, many conflicts, even those pitting the “good” side against the “bad” one, have ended by negotiation. Of course, it is not easy without retreating from the principles of the Charter to find a middle ground between a threat of force that shows an unambiguous determination to roll back aggression, and one that indicates a preference for a nonviolent resolution; and between a negotiation that results in a tangible material reward for an aggressor willing to remove his forces from the territory he seized, and a negotiation that ends with the restoration of the victim yet allows the aggressor to save face.

But the principle of international concern should not be interpreted to require potentially very bloody and destructive wars leading to unpredictable political catastrophes. It is the function of diplomacy to try to reconcile conflicting considerations. Giving a free reign to aggression would turn the world into a jungle. But so would the equation of collective security with the kind of allout war that rules out diplomacy. The more serious we are about the future of collective security, the more we need to avoid a course that would compromise this notion, both by making it much more difficult to bring a coalition together the next time, and by undermining domestic support for it.

What diplomatic alternatives to war can be developed depend on the nature of each case. The Kuwait crisis occurred in a uniquely contentious part of the world. Nowhere else are there so many interlocking grievances, so many ruthless leaders, so much jockeying for predominance, so many dangerous weapons, such vital resources, such fiercely disputed borders, such intense religious and ideological conflicts. This suggests that even a total victory over Saddam Hussein is likely to unleash forces that the American-led coalition would find hard to control, especially if a desperate Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to divide the coalition opposing him, turns the war into one that embroils Israel and fans the fires of anti-Americanism in an already inflamed subcontinent. Just as in 1950 the temptation to unify Korea by force, after the armies under General MacArthur had pushed back the North Koreans behind the 38th parallel, ought to have been resisted, the temptation to “resolve” the issue of Saddam Hussein by destroying his arsenal and his rule should be resisted now, because even their destruction and his elimination would not miraculously resolve the fundamental issues in the region.


There are other ways—containment and arms control—with which the threat he represents can be addressed, while a war’s cost in American and other lives, military and civilian, could be horrendous, far disproportionate to what is gained. The best strategy is to keep the military pressure on Saddam Hussein, to give economic sanctions the time to take their toll, while continuing to make it clear to him that he must withdraw from Kuwait. The administration should be spending at least as much time preparing a diplomatic settlement (for discussion at the meetings that are now being planned in Washington and Baghdad) as it has spent on keeping the coalition together and on preparing it for war.


The substance of such a settlement has been plausibly outlined in this journal by George Ball1 and before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, on December 5, 1990, by Zbigniew Brzezinski. It would be based on the sensible notion that the issues that make the Middle East such a dangerous place are interconnected, and that the Kuwait crisis shows that the time has come to deal with them systematically—after years of pretending that they weren’t ripe for settlement. If overt linkage would look like a reward for aggression, we should resort to what could be called unlinked or implicit linkage. Just as we did not formally “reward” the Soviets for removing their missiles from Cuba by linking their retreat to the removal of American missiles in Turkey, yet we removed them afterward, we could suggest to Iraq that we would be willing to initiate (1) an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict; (2) an arms control conference aimed at ending the shipment to the region of certain categories of weapons and at inspecting the nuclear and chemical facilities of all the Middle Eastern states; and (3) arbitration between Iraq and Kuwait, but only after Iraq’s evacuation of its neighbor.2 And we could, subsequently, establish a system of regional security against any future aggression to protect the militarily weak states of the region against their neighbors under UN auspices and with the participation of UN forces in which the US would not be an overwhelmingly dominant member.

The reason for taking up the Palestinian issue through such a conference is not merely related to Saddam Hussein’s saving “face.” The contrast between the West’s reaction to his aggression and its leniency toward Israel’s transgressions and occupation of Arab lands will continue to serve both as a justification and as excuse for attacks on Western interests and as a source of troubles for Arab governments friendly to the US.

There are, however, reasons to fear that such a course will not be taken. As George Ball and others have warned, the very size of the American deployment risks pushing the policy toward an early war, whereas a negotiation leading to a settlement that is neither appeasement of Saddam Hussein nor unconditional surrender by Saddam Hussein is likely to take time. The UN resolution that demands a withdrawal by January 15, instead of merely authorizing an eventual resort to force, and the administration’s eagerness to play down the effectiveness of economic sanctions (in a case in which they are quite likely to have deep effects on the economy and the army of the targeted country) are likely to make war highly probable if on January 15 no settlement is yet in sight—because a decision to wait and to rely primarily on the sanctions would then look like a retreat. To “do nothing” after January 15 would, at best, make it clear that we are, in fact, negotiating—and this too would look like a retreat, since the administration has somewhat rashly proclaimed that the conversations we have proposed will not amount to a negotiation.

We have put ourselves in a position that is exposed and unwise. If we want to avoid a war without abandoning our objective, the restoration of Kuwait, we have to negotiate. If we actually prefer war to a negotiation, the hopes raised by the announcement of the “conversations” will make domestic unity even more difficult to reach unless we can prove that Iraq rejected all chances for a settlement, and refused to get out of Kuwait unless forced to do so by war.

A war would be a good precedent for the future of collective security if it could be quick, easy, and lead to the kind of peace that chastises the aggressor country but gives it a chance to play a more modest and constructive role in world affairs. The trouble is that nobody can be sure that the war will be easy, and some highly qualified experts fear it may be very costly indeed. Moreover, a quick war would be one that inflicts such destruction on Iraq that it is likely to wreck not only Saddam Hussein but Iraq itself, with incalculable consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East and in other regions as well. (See the excerpt from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s testimony published on the preceding page.)

Statesmen are more obsessed with the past than concerned with the pattern their acts may set for the future. The Bush administration seems to want to exorcise both Munich and Vietnam. But, as Brzezinski put it, “to speak of Saddam Hussein as a Hitler is to trivialize Hitler and to elevate Saddam.” He added that Iraq is not Germany but a regional threat “we can contain, deter or repel, as the situation dictates.” Nobody has suggested that Kuwait should suffer the fate inflicted by Britain and France on Czechoslovakia at Munich, and the nature and size of the coalition against Iraq shows the irrelevance of the Munich analogy. To argue that any policy short of war would lead to Iraq’s domination of the Middle East or create a mortal threat for Israel is to ignore the many measures that could be taken to limit Iraq’s future power and to rely on a crude and unconvincing version of the domino theory.

The administration also explains that it does not want to repeat the error made in Vietnam, where we did not use all the force at our disposal, or used it only gradually. But if it is our intention to use all our might in one huge spasm, there exists an enormous disproportion between our ends and our means, a contradiction between our stated objective, which is the restoration of Kuwait, and our enormous forces, whose engagement is likely, as in so many modern wars, to lead, in fact, to an escalation of goals, and therefore to serious strains for the coalition, to discord at home, and to unforeseen upheavals. The same disproportion exists between the respective contributions of America and its partners.

Vietnam, alas, remains a more relevant analogy than Munich, and—given the Americanization of the conflict both in Vietnam and in the Gulf—it cannot be exorcised so easily. Of course, the terrain is not the same, the enemy can’t move and hide in jungles, and he has no friendly suppliers abroad (another reason, incidentally, for relying on sanctions). But he has more lethal weapons than the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, in a more combustible part of the world. As in the case of Vietnam the administration seems to minimize the possible bad effects of military action, and to exaggerate the costs of alternative courses. As with Vietnam, the obsession with the Gulf crisis distorts American perspectives and priorities with regard to other parts of the world. It strains relations with allies accused of not fully sharing a “burden” we deem common (but whose size and direction we haven’t been willing to set in common); and it concentrates on an admittedly important region resources that are needed for dealing with problems of at least equal importance in Eastern Europe, or in Central America, or at home. As in Vietnam, we may, if the war is not quickly over, and even if it is, but only through the annihilation of the enemy, be trapped in a quagmire of our own making.

Collective security will be the casualty, not the winner, if we lose a sense of proportion, if we launch a war that will divide the coalition and the public far more than a protracted reliance on sanctions, if we interpret the Security Council’s authorization of force as a green light for presidential action without Congressional endorsement. (Surely the UN Charter did not annul the Congress’s constitutional power to declare war.) Only a miraculously successful war—a swift victory through a limited resort to force—would dispel all these dangers. Miracles rarely happen; in international affairs all good things do not come in a neat package. War may well be unavoidable, if a serious negotiation fails, but the most plausible chance for such a war to be brief and limited would be if it occurred after sanctions had had the time to weaken and disrupt Iraq’s forces. Any other kind of war risks pushing states away from collective security and—with predominantly American losses on the UN side—almost ensures that the US will not again provide the leadership—not to be confused with preponderance—required to make it work. There are, to be sure, excellent reasons why one would like Saddam Hussein to lose not only Kuwait but his position and his prestige. But on balance, the cost of allowing him to save face if he leaves Kuwait may be far less than that of blowing him away, and of blowing away in the process the future of collective security.

December 20, 1990


The following is an excerpt from the testimony of Zbigniew Brzezinski before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 5, 1990.

What are the likely broader aftereffects of the war?

The administration is yet to move beyond vague generalities regarding its concept of the postwar Middle East. Yet considerable anxiety is justified that subsequent to the war the United States might not be able to extricate itself from the Middle Eastern cauldron, especially if in the meantime the Arab masses have become radicalized and hostile to the Arab regimes that endorsed the US military action. How will that affect America’s global position? I would think it likely that, with the United States embroiled in the Middle Eastern mess for years to come, both Europe and Japan—free to promote their own agendas—will pursue the enhancement of their economic power.

In the region itself, it is probable that fundamentalist Iran will become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, and that terrorist Syria will inherit the mantle of leadership among the Arabs. It is also possible that the destruction of Iraq by America and the resulting radicalization of the Arabs might leave Israel, armed as it already is with nuclear weapons, more tempted to use its military force to impose its will in this volatile region. How will all this affect the area’s sensitive balance of power?

I believe that none of the above possible developments would be in the American interest. Yet I do not sense that sufficient strategic planning has been devoted by the administration to an analysis of the wider shock effects of a war that is bound to be exploited by other parties for their own selfish ends.

This Issue

January 17, 1991