The Toothlessness of the United Nations
BERLIN — Donald Trump’s 11-day trip abroad, beginning in Saudi Arabia, will be his first international trip as president. The trip will set the tone for U.S. diplomatic relations throughout the president’s time in office.
Yemen or Ukraine, Syria and Iraq or Southern Sudan, there is no lack of the use of arms of the cruelest kind between and inside states. Yet, all UN member states outlawed military aggression long ago. Is it then legitimate to support the Yemeni government by military means against insurgents as the Saudis do, the Assad government against rebels as the Russians do, or the rebels against Assad as the Americans do? The question of the legitimacy of armed interference in the internal affairs of another country has always been extremely sensitive. This is because it touches on a traditional and central privilege of the nation-state: the monopoly on armed force.
Without that monopoly effective governance is impossible. Without it, the nation-state cannot survive. Similarly on a global level, without a monopoly on military power, no effective global governance is imaginable. Therefore, the institutions of the liberal international order created during the 20th century have tried to equip themselves with as much legal authority as possible, including outlawing armed aggression. The United Nations has no monopoly on armed force; it does not even have armed forces of its own. Only through the Security Council can the United Nations decide to use military means to resolve conflicts or to keep peace. Security Council decisions, however, are subject to the agreement (or at least abstentions) of all five permanent members of the Security Council because they wield the power of veto. But as a decision to give legitimacy to the interference in the internal affairs of an independent country would gnaw at the sovereign rights of nation-states over time, such instances are few in the history of the United Nations. The first was a resolution to deploy armed forces against North Korea in 1950 after Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, attacked the Republic of Korea. The latest instance of the international community using armed force against a sovereign state was taken by the Security Council in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Today, resolutions to intervene against Assad because of his use of poison gas against rebels and civilians are regularly vetoed by Russia.
Much of the legal requisitions developed in the system of the United Nations and its sub-organizations can be understood as an effort to maintain the international order without taking recourse to armed force: international agreements with complicated conflict resolution systems, dispute settlement mechanisms, courts and tribunals, provisions for economic coercion. Even the Soviet Union and China, with their own ideological systems alien to liberal values, with the founding of the UN accepted this rules-based order as practical and effective. In addition, the United States and its allies have made efforts over the past few decades to safeguard the liberal international order by a whole network of bilateral and multilateral security guarantees and defense alliances.
As shown by the high number of armed conflicts around the world, the liberal international order is a fragile system, notwithstanding the rules agreed to in numerous international conferences and resolutions. It cannot be anything but fragile as long as the problem of the monopoly of power in the international system has not been resolved.
It is essential to back the value system of the liberal international order by word and by deed. Confronted with new threats to global governance by new state and non-state actors, and by the impact of new technologies and ideologies, we should — if anything — be making efforts to develop that order further.
The United States has been the one reliable pillar of the rules-based international order. On May 3, new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to after a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” what must be seen as the first programmatic statement from the new administration. If meant and taken seriously, that statement is bound to shake the very foundation of that order.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.