Leading Article: The possible and the defensible

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is confusion and unhappiness about the United Nations and its role - and there has rarely been a higher level of both - the member states have only themselves to blame. The UN, after all, is its member states. It can act only so far as they permit it to act. Its failures are their failures. When member states are disappointed, it is because they have been confronted with the sad fact that the organisation is not more virtuous than the sum of its parts, nor less imbued with failings. The hope, inspired by the sentiments of the charter, that a universal, effective, just and even-handed body might somehow be created out of a community of self-interested, fallible and indecisive nations lodges deep in the psyche.

Truth to tell, the UN has always fallen short of these ideals. In the Cold War decades, the unanimity rule in the Security Council was blamed for the UN's ineffectiveness: the paralysis induced by the superpower confrontation prevented it from taking action, from behaving as it was meant to. When the Cold War ended, there was hope of a new dawn. Four years later, the UN is simultaneously condemned for the results of its military intervention in Somalia and its failure to intervene in Bosnia. The new dawn has faded into grey afternoon.

When hopes fail, it is right to ask for the reasons. But it is also right to ask whether those hopes were themselves misplaced. The lesson of the Cold War, finally, was not that the evolution of the UN into a global policeman was thwarted, but that the difficulties and dangers of intervention were masked by the Security Council's paralysis.

It is true that, in crisis after crisis, superpower rivalry and the use of the veto prevented action. The mobilisation of nations in the Gulf war effort seemed to confirm the expectation that, after the end of the Cold War, the UN would be free to act.

But such a view leaves several factors out of account. It leaves out, above all, the nature of the conflicts that the UN was set up to police - envisaged, in that immediate post-war era, as conflicts between states. There have been relatively few such conflicts, and only Korea and the invasion of Kuwait commanded a UN response. The UN was not involved in the conflict between Vietnam and China, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the Warsaw Pact invasions of Czechoslovakia or Hungary.

Far more prevalent than inter-state aggression in the post-war era have been the civil wars that followed first decolonisation, then the collapse of the Soviet empire. These are conflicts in which, strictly speaking, the UN is prohibited to intervene under Article 2:7, unless a case can be made of a threat to international stability. In the era of superpower rivalry, internal conflicts were largely managed by the superpowers or their surrogates: each picked a side and backed it. This was not a recipe for swift resolution, but nor was protracted conflict seen as a policy failure, since the object was not to bring the war to an early conclusion but to back the winner.

Now there is one superpower and an explosion of confused, bloody and intractable civil wars. There is a laudable desire to bring to an end the human suffering these conflicts occasion. There is an uncomfortable feeling that, even if the remaining superpower were willing to take on this burden alone, it would not be desirable to permit it to do so. The United Nations, therefore, is expected to fill the gap.

But is this a gap that it can reasonably fill? The unpalatable truth is that outside intervention in a civil war rarely has a predictable or desirable effect on the outcome. If the parties to the conflict wish to continue to fight, they will do so, regardless of the presence of an international force. And if, as in Somalia, the UN falls into the error of believing it has identified a simple obstacle to peace and attempting to eliminate him, it runs the inevitable risk of drawing the curses of all sides. The problem is not that the UN has failed to intervene effectively. It is that such intervention is misconceived.

The question remains, if not that kind of intervention, then what? There are two kinds of dream attached to the UN and they conflict. One is that it should be a universal body in which all views are respected - 'to encourage', as the charter puts it, 'friendly relations among states, based on the principle that all nations have equal rights and are entitled to self-determination'. The second is that it should be effective. Lately that has come to mean effective in the global projection of force.

The conflict between those two dreams is simply stated. The more universal a body is, the less effective it becomes. For every decisive action, the UN must sacrifice the interests or desires of some of its members to the interests and desires of the few powerful members. If it succeeds, it risks its moral authority. If it fails, it risks its credibility.

It is a lesson of history that the projection of force is an idea best expressed by the nation state. It can, at its widest, become an alliance of nation states. It cannot become the property of a body that claims to accommodate a universal idea. On the few occasions that the UN has projected substantial military force, it has been because the powerful members, and principally the United States, have wanted it to: in Korea, for instance, or in the Gulf war. And on both occasions, the charge has been levelled that the United Nations served as the glove puppet for the hand of the United States.

The suggestion has been made that this charge could be answered if the UN were to be given its own military structure, complete with its own volunteer army. But, even if the powerful member states were willing to do this, could it really be thought desirable to entrust the Secretary-General with the use of lethal force? Would that not be a greater abdication of responsibility than even the current vacillations of the Security Council?

If the choice is between the projection of force and moral authority, the decision has to be in favour of authority. This does not mean impotence, but a clear idea of what kind of action is possible and desirable. If the UN is to be criticised at this stage in its history, it is for its failure to reach these definitions and to act upon them.

There are three areas in which the UN could and should act, without sacrificing its principles. First, it should act in the pre-emption of conflict. Had the UN deployed troops - with a mandate to fire, if necessary - between Serbia and Croatia before the outbreak of hostilities, the bloodshed might have been avoided. Second, it should be the agency that will negotiate the ceasefire when that moment comes and, finally, it should enforce the peace afterwards.

Difficult though these tasks are, they are within the realm of the possible and the morally defensible. If the UN limits its ambitions to operations that have both those qualities, it will be easier for the wider membership to entrust the Security Council with the tools to take swift and decisive action. It remains then for the powerful member states to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the task. That means providing the troops and the money. To pass resolutions without offering the means to implement them helps nobody.