Courtesy Reuters

Stayin' Alive: The Rumors of the UN's Death Have Been Exaggerated


In "Why the Security Council Failed" (May/June 2003), Michael J. Glennon provides a singular service by insisting that our understanding of international law should take historical practice and prevailing security and power realities fully into account. His commonsense approach offers a refreshing contrast to the tendentious claim (too often heard during the Iraq debate) that the proper role of the UN Security Council is to pass judgment on when member states can or cannot use force in defense of their national security.

Such a definition of the council's job is based on an overly narrow and selective reading of the UN Charter. The charter's provisions limiting the use of force were adopted as part of a larger system of collective security that the Security Council was meant to enforce. By repeatedly failing over the past decade to take effective action against Iraq, those permanent members now claiming to be the guardians of international law have, in fact, done the most to undermine it.

Up to this point, Glennon's analysis is right on track. But his commendable effort to apply the cold logic of political realism goes too far: what we are witnessing today is not the death of the actual Security Council, as he suggests, but of the illusion that it is meant to function like a court. Glennon takes three wrong turns in reaching the overly dramatic conclusion that the council is finished.

First, to conclude as he does that the council's failure to act as a global legal arbiter will leave the body unemployed and irrelevant requires adopting the absolutist standards of the legal purists, standards that Glennon elsewhere rejects. In fact, abandoning a maximalist view of what the council is meant to do will have a positive impact, allowing its members to refocus their energies on seeking common ground and on identifying joint projects for maintaining international peace and security. There are plenty of these missions to go around: the successful completion of

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