The Security Council myth.

remainingNew York Times

As everybody knows, the United Nations was founded in the idealistic hope that it could "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." But, despite its many achievements, the United Nations has failed to establish a monopoly on the use of force. Michael J. Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School, points out that, since the end of World War II, there have been more than 100 interstate conflicts without U.N. approval. By contrast, while the United Nations has approved several interstate peacekeeping missions--ranging from marginally effective to outright disastrous--it has only sanctioned two interstate wars: Korea in 1950 and the Persian Gulf in 1990. (The former was a fluke: The Soviet Union would have exercised its Security Council veto but was boycotting over the exclusion of Communist China.) And the world grew accustomed to this state of affairs. When the United States went to war in Vietnam or Grenada, or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia, nobody complained about the lack of U.N. authorization.

Why, then, in the 1990s did the world begin to expect the United Nations would be obeyed? First, the cold war ended. It was understood that the superpower rivalry had shunted the United Nations to the margins of world affairs. Now, at last, the organization could fulfill its intended mission. Then, in 1990, the United Nations joined together to support the Gulf war. This was just the sort of instance for which the United Nations had been designed: nations great and small banding together to repel a clear-cut case of aggression. The three subsequent U.S. military excursions--in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia--all fell under the U.N.'s auspices. The assumption was that, with the cold war over, U.S. military intervention would follow this pattern from then on.

The first President Bush fed this hope by promising a "new world order." The Clinton administration likewise promised a foreign policy of "assertive multilateralism." The internationalist euphoria of the early '90s is reflected in a speech given by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in the fall of 1991. When he started in his position, in 1982, Perez de Cuellar glumly admitted in a report that the Security Council was "unable to take decisive action to resolve international conflicts." Nine years later, he rejoiced in the U.N.'s "renaissance," concluding, "The effectiveness of the United Nations can no longer be in doubt."

The U.N.'s newfound power, though, was based upon the historical aberration of the '90s. The cold war had ended, and nothing had risen up as a challenge to this new, U.S.dominated, unipolar world. And so there were a series of wars in which the U.S. position encountered no real opposition from Russia, China, or Western Europe. This does not mean the United States subordinated its warmaking authority to the approval of the Security Council; it was the other way around. And yet internationalists and some liberals fallaciously assumed that, because the United States did take action with U.N. approval, it would not have taken action in those instances had the United Nations not approved.

Consider the Gulf war, usually considered the paradigmatic U.N. operation. President George H.W. Bush admitted in a press conference beforehand that he would drive Saddam out of Kuwait even without the Security Council's permission. Lawrence Eagleburger, Bush pere's deputy secretary of state, foreshadowed the sentiments of the current Bush administration when he declared, "It is absolutely essential that the U.S.--collectively if possible but individually if necessary--not only put a stop to this aggression but roll it back." And the first President Bush was perfectly willing to steamroll his fellow Security Council members. As Stanley Meisler reports in United Nations: The First Fifty Years, in the midst of the bombing campaign that the Soviets proposed, and Perez de Cuellar enthusiastically promoted, a face-saving plan was created for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait after a cease-fire. But, as Meisler writes, "Bush preempted any U.N. consideration of the plan by proclaiming an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to start leaving Kuwait City within twenty-four hours or face annihilation." After the war, critics on the left derided Bush's "new world order" as a ploy to turn the United Nations into an American puppet.

The fantasy that George W. Bush has befouled the multilateral paradise he inherited also conveniently disregards the fact that his predecessor flouted the Security Council as well. At first, it is true, the new Clintonites appeared reluctant to cross international opinion. But, wearying of Europe's failure to halt the slaughter in Bosnia, they adopted a new strategy that echoed Eagleburger's: "Multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must." After British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook complained that his lawyers told him intervention against Serbia would violate international law, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied, "Get new lawyers." Clinton proceeded, without Security Council approval, to bomb Iraq in 1998 for its failure to cooperate with weapons inspectors and to land ground troops in Kosovo in 1999, angering Russia in the latter instance and both France and Russia in the former. (At the time, Republicans seized upon the allies' anger as evidence of Clinton's failure. In 1999, in his first major foreign policy address as a candidate, the younger Bush pointedly stated, "We have partners, not satellites," and promised "more American consultation.")

This is not to say Bush's foreign policy is identical to Clinton's in its regard for supernational institutions. But the atmosphere of partisan distrust that pervades Washington has blown the differences out of proportion. The idea that the president must obtain permission from the Security Council before launching a war, now regarded by some Democrats as a bedrock principle, would have struck most of them as alien as recently as a year and a half ago. An essay by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Stewart Patrick in World Policy Journal, published in the fall of 2001, lamented that the notion that the United States "cannot afford to be hamstrung by global rules and institutions ... enjoys bipartisan support."

The myth that Bush has struck a historic blow against the U.N.'s authority is furthered by conservatives who exult in its demise. "THE UNITED NATIONS IMPLODES," rejoiced a recent Weekly Standard cover. But those who celebrate Bush's flouting of the Security Council and those who mourn it share the same basic misapprehension: that the United Nations ever had the authority to stop the United States in the first place.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.