Not Much New at the U.N.

A United Nations report issued yesterday proposed, in the words of the New York Times, “the most sweeping changes in [the organization’s] history, recommending the overhaul of its top decision-making group, the Security Council, and holding out the possibility that it could grant legitimacy to pre-emptive military strikes.” It appears, however, that there is less to the report, which was commissioned by Kofi Annan as part of the fallout over the Iraq war, than meets the eye.
Currently, all power at the U.N. resides in the Security Council, which has five permanent members and ten temporary, rotating members. Only the five permanent members have the power to veto any U.N. action. The permanent members–the victors of World War II, plus France–are largely an accident of history.
The new report includes two different proposals to reform the Security Council; one would add more permanent members, while the other would add a new tier of semipermanent members. Neither, however, would touch the root of power in the organization: the same five countries would retain veto powers. The problem is intractable; no nation that now has a veto will consent to give it up, while adding more vetoes inevitably moves in the direction of paralysis. And doing away with the veto power entirely is unthinkable, since no real power–like the U.S.–trusts the organization enough to give it meaningful authority without retaining a veto right.
As for the report’s recognition that pre-emptive war may be permissible, it too is of limited significance:

[I]t acknowledged that a new problem had risen because of the nature of terrorist attacks “where the threat is not imminent but still claimed to be real: for example, the acquisition, with allegedly hostile intent, of nuclear weapons-making capability.”
It said that if the arguments for “anticipatory self-defense” in such cases were good ones, they should be put to the Security Council, which would have the power to authorize military action under guidelines including the seriousness of the threat, the proportionality of the response, the exhaustion of all alternatives and the balance of consequences.
Apparently in anticipation of objections from Washington over that requirement, the report said, “For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all.”

There is nothing here, in short, that would meaningfully reform the U.N. or make it a more useful organization in the present environment of terrorist threat.


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