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Future world stability does not require either a US or a UN hegemony

By Michael Lind - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2003

During the debate about a second UN resolution authorising a US-dominated invasion and occupation of Iraq, both sides share a common premise. France, Russia and Germany argued that the UN would lose its moral authority if it rubber-stamped a war that the US has decided to wage. The Bush administration argued that the UN would lose its geopolitical credibility if it did not. Both sides are mistaken - the UN has neither authority nor credibility to lose.

The UN has never functioned as its founders intended it to do. US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who coined the name and oversaw planning for the UN during World War II, was a realist who sought to avoid the mistakes that had rendered the League of Nations ineffectual.

In Roosevelt's conception, the UN Security Council was to have formalised a great-power concert of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union. The addition to the Security Council's permanent membership of two minor powers, Nationalist China (at US insistence) and France (at Britain's insistence) undermined the Security Council's nature as a superpower steering committee.


Then Soviet-US competition paralysed the council for almost half a century. After the Cold War ended, the UN authorised the first Persian Gulf War. But an expected Russian veto in the Security Council led the US and its allies to wage war on Serbia under the authority of NATO rather than the UN. The present rift over Iraq between the US and other permanent council members may inspire future US administrations to follow the model of the war against Slobodan Milosevic rather than that of the two wars against Iraq.

The UN Security Council suffers from two defects, one that can be repaired and a second that cannot. The first defect is anachronism. The Security Council's permanent members are the victors of World War II, not today's great powers (France and China were not first-rank powers even in 1945). Germany, Japan and India in many ways are more important in today's world than Britain and France.

As US foreign policy scholar Philip Bobbitt has observed, membership in the G-8 group of leading economies reflects the distribution of world power more accurately than the permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

The anachronistic nature of the Security Council might be remedied by the addition of new permanent members - at the price of multiplying potential vetoes. But the deeper defect that cripples the UN cannot be cured. That flaw is the theory of collective security.
In a system of multiple, sovereign states, world governance may be undertaken in one of three ways: by all, one or some of the states. Collective security holds that a threat to world order is a threat to all states, which therefore should act in unison. In reality, of course, few threats affect all countries severely enough to make the risk or reality of war worthwhile. Most countries, therefore, will opt out of most military campaigns against states or non-state actors that do not threaten their interests - not because their leaders are cowardly or immoral but because the first duty of statesmen is to avoid needlessly squandering the lives of their soldiers and the money in their treasuries.

Compared with world governance by all, world governance by one is a more workable proposition. The theory of US unilateral world domination, adopted by George W. Bush and theorised chiefly by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, holds that the US can best protect itself by providing the world with certain public goods, including nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the suppression of terrorism by means of preventive wars waged solely by the US if necessary. No problems of collective action arise in this system, since all important decisions are made in Washington. The only thing required of the rest of the world is collective acquiescence.

This is not easily obtained, as the Bush administration is discovering. The British Empire, which used its naval superiority to suppress piracy and end the slave trade, is held up by today's US unilateralists as a precedent for benevolent US hegemony. But 19th-century Britain was not perceived as a benevolent global hegemon by the US or other countries at the time.


Until the early 1900s, the British fleet was considered the main military threat by US war planners. Rejecting the British claim that global free trade served the good of humanity rather than the narrow interests of British manufacturers, the US engaged in industrial protectionism to promote its manufacturing capability at the expense of Britain.

By the early 20th century, Britain's brief military and commercial hegemony had provoked its own nemesis, in the form of the arms build-ups and nationalist industrial policies of the US, Germany, Japan and Russia.

Paradoxically, Americans have been the principal sponsors of collective security and the new doctrine of US unilateralism. While the means differ, the end is the same - a world in which a single authority, be it the UN or the US acting on its own, is the functional equivalent of a world government, in which the line between war and law enforcement vanishes.

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This article was first published in The Australian on March 14, 2003.

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About the Author

Michael Lind is a Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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