Learning from the Gulf


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

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

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

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

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

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