Part of Security Institutions

Why the Security Council Failed

SHOWDOWN AT TURTLE BAY

"The tents have been struck," declared South Africa's prime minister, Jan Christian Smuts, about the League of Nations' founding. "The great caravan of humanity is again on the march." A generation later, this mass movement toward the international rule of law still seemed very much in progress. In 1945, the League was replaced with a more robust United Nations, and no less a personage than U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull hailed it as the key to "the fulfillment of humanity's highest aspirations." The world was once more on the move.

Earlier this year, however, the caravan finally ground to a halt. With the dramatic rupture of the UN Security Council, it became clear that the grand attempt to subject the use of force to the rule of law had failed.

In truth, there had been no progress for years. The UN's rules governing the use of force, laid out in the charter and managed by the Security Council, had fallen victim to geopolitical forces too strong for a legalist institution to withstand. By 2003, the main question facing countries considering whether to use force was not whether it was lawful. Instead, as in the nineteenth century, they simply questioned whether it was wise.

The beginning of the end of the international security system had actually come slightly earlier, on September 12, 2002, when President George W. Bush, to the surprise of many, brought his case against Iraq to the General Assembly and challenged the UN to take action against Baghdad for failing to disarm. "We will work with the UN Security Council for the necessary resolutions," Bush said. But he warned that he would act alone if the UN failed to cooperate.

Washington's threat was reaffirmed a month later by Congress, when it gave Bush the authority to use force against Iraq without getting approval from the UN first. The American message seemed clear: as a senior administration official put it at the time, "we don't need the Security Council."

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