A UN for Our Time

A UN for Our Time

A military strategist believes major reforms are needed at the United Nations.

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the source: “Anarchy and Order in the New Age of Prevention” by Thomas M. Nichols, in World Policy Journal, Fall 2005.

Since the Cold War ended, the campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Europe and Africa, the nuclear ambitions of rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, and terrorist attacks, especially those of 9/11, have led many nations to question the idea of absolute state sovereignty, doubt the adequacy of deterrence, and look at preventive force in a new light. “A new age of preventive war” is upon us, and a reformed United Nations is needed to preside over it, contends Thomas M. Nichols, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College.

In the face of the crises of the 1990s, the UN’s performance “was dismal even by the reckoning of its supporters.” Its paralysis during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda cost many lives, and when genocide loomed in Kosovo five years later, the United States and its NATO allies “acted without the Security Council’s approval rather than risk a Russian veto.” After Kosovo, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan cautiously embraced “the principle that states could at times interfere in the internal affairs of others.” Two years later, a Canadian-sponsored international commission went further, saying that the UN has a duty to stop mass murder and ethnic cleansing, and that when the evidence is clear, preventive military action might be warranted. Annan himself in 2005 urged that as a “last resort” in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity, the Security Council should be able to “take enforcement action according to the [UN] Charter.”

Yet the UN as currently constituted appears dysfunctional. “If the United Nations cannot bring itself to condemn even the horrors of Darfur because such ‘naming and shaming’ can be stopped by reprehensible regimes eager to escape such censure themselves,” asks Nichols, “how can it be expected to exercise actual force against such regimes in the future?” The solution, he argues, is for the UN to stop admitting “illiberal regimes” to the 10 rotating seats on the Security Council, and to qualify the veto enjoyed by each of the permanent Big Five members by giving a supermajority of the council the power to override any veto.

Nichols believes that these reforms could be adopted if the United States and other major powers demand them, and threaten not to bring future issues of inter­na­tional security before the UN. Without such reforms, he says, the organization “will be doomed, at least as an arbiter of the use of force.”

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