We The Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the Twenty-first Century
Dictators and warlords, whether in Africa or the Balkans, increasingly tend to believe that if they steadfastly resist them, UN interventions will eventually fail; the international community will become divided, grow tired, and give up. Too often they are right.
The arbiter of international peace and security is supposedly the United Nations Security Council, which is responsible for securing the peaceful settlement of international disputes and, if that fails, for taking action to deal with threats to the peace and acts of aggression. The Council is also the guarantor of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other treaties relating to weapons of mass destruction.
Sometimes the Council’s action is blocked by the veto, or threatened veto, of one of the five permanent members, or simply by a general wish not to get involved too closely in a violent crisis. The secretary-general is constantly engaged in efforts to resolve all kinds of problems between states peacefully. If the Council does agree to take action against aggression, it proceeds in stages—first with demands to halt the aggression, then with a series of sanctions, and finally, if none of this has worked, with the use of force. Getting Iraq out of Kuwait was a rare example of the entire sequence being carried out. For most problems, however, non-forceful methods of peacekeeping are used.
Very few problems can be effectively resolved in a single action, but governments have come to dislike open-ended international commitments. There has therefore been pressure on the UN to withdraw from many of its recent interventions at the earliest possible moment, sometimes leaving behind an unresolved problem that continues to fester, and even reemerges once again as a threat to the peace. Angola, Haiti, and Cambodia are examples of this tendency, but potentially the most serious of all is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The UN won the war to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein’s regime, with all its unpleasant habits, remains more or less intact.
The connection between the particular and the general, between trying to disarm an aggressor state and the validity of arms control treaties is vividly illustrated in a concluding passage from Richard Butler’s book, The Greatest Threat. Butler, a former Australian diplomat, has spent much of his professional life in the negotiation of treaties to control weapons of mass destruction; he explains that the deepest anxiety of states who have been unwilling to sign these treaties is that
the treaties could be cheated on from within and that the means of verification would neither deter nor detect such cheating.
Saddam Hussein’s dubious gift to this world has been to constitute the outstanding case for the possibility of cheating from within; in particular, having joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he then proceeded to create atomic weapons clandestinely.
In July 1997, Butler succeeded Rolf Ekeus of Sweden as executive chairman of the United Nations Special…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.