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The United States of America - a lone diplomatic cowboy riding the range?

By Bea Duffield - posted Tuesday, 18 March 2003

The United States' drive to war with Iraq has divided the United Nations Security Council, split the world into pro-and anti-Bush elements and caused one of the bitterest transatlantic rows in living memory. We are not just talking about conflict at diplomatic level. Bad feelings and country bashing have flowed over into the general populus. For example, Americans are taking the unprecedented step of renaming their French fries freedom fries and today's most popular web site is which bags the French for their anti-US position.

The only people who are winning out of this are the French President Chirac who is thrilled to see France at the centre of world power politics after years in the diplomatic wildness; Russian President Putin who is busy calculating his countries financial gain if the US and the Franco-German alliance get into a biding war for his support; Iraq's Supreme Leader Saddam Hussein who is overjoyed to see the international coalition against him fracturing and the world's most famous poster boy Osama bin Laden who is no doubt rejoicing to see his enemies in disarray.

With the Pentagon drawing up invasion plans and the world's media announcing the proposed invasion date, it's looking more and more like the US will go to war with or without support from the UN. But will US defiance damage the Security Council? History shows that the answer is "no". The sad fact is that the Security Council won't be damaged because its position doesn't count for much when nations contemplate war.


But firstly, a quick refresher on the Security Council. It's composed of 15 UN member States, five of which are permanent members - United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Federation and China. These members have the power to veto a substantive decision of the Council by voting against it. The other ten members of the Council are elected by the General Assembly to two-year non-renewable terms, with five new members elected each year. The ten elected members, known in UN language as "non-permanent members", are selected according to a distribution formula from each of the world's major regions. At present, these members include relatively insignificant world players like Mexico, Chile, Bulgaria, Angola, Cameroon and Guinea, all of which have some type of dependency on the US.

So how effective has the Security Council been up to now? According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, since 1945 there have been 26 international wars that have killed three and a half million people. Only three of these wars had Security Council authorisation. These include the 1990-91 Gulf War, the recent Afghanistan conflict and the 1950-53 Korean War, the latter only because Stalin ordered his Soviet representative to boycott Council meetings.

This means that almost 90 per cent of international conflicts since WW2 proceeded without UN authorization!

Because of its stand-off with the Security Council, many people see the US as a lone diplomatic cowboy wearing a black hat. But this isn't the first time that the US has had a stand off with the Security Council. The US has sent combats troops into other countries more than 50 times since 1945 without Security Council knowledge and/or approval. Well known examples include Vietnam (Johnson), Haiti and Kosovo (Clinton), Panama (Bush Snr), Grenada (Reagan), and Iran (Carter).

However, the US is not the only cowboy riding the range. Every permanent member of the UN Security Council has undertaken at least one war without the Council's permission or endorsement. For example China attacked India in 1962 without a Security Council resolution and then attacked Vietnam in 1979 without a resolution. The then Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary without bothering to go to the Security Council. Britain and France invaded Egypt in 1956 without consulting the Security Council. Both have also sent troops to Kosovo and various African destinations without Council approval or advice.

History shows that from the day the UN Security Council first met in 1946 no world power has ever stayed out of a war because the Council voted against it, and no great military power ever got into a war because the Security Council ordered it. So why should anyone listen to the Security Council now? The sad fact is, despite what happens with Iraq, the outlook for the Security Council is more of the same.

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About the Author

Dr Bea Duffield is General Manager of the Office of the Chief Scientist, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, which is a member of National Forum.

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