UN love fest

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This week’s New York gathering of world leaders will sign a bit of paper full of good intentions, but no commitments, writes Robert Skidelsky in the latest issue of Vedomosti.

International relations stands at the cross-roads. On the one side is the Blair-Bush ‘new’ doctrine, which links world security to the spread of western values. On the other side is the traditional doctrine of national sovereignty, which precludes intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. In between wobbles Kofi Annan’s United Nations, whose Charter commits it to uphold non-intervention, but which is pulled to towards intervention by the present sentiment of its most powerful western members. 

The position of Russia and China is clear enough, and is supported by most members. The Charter exists to defend sovereign states against aggression. Any military action has to be authorised by the Security Council, each of whose permanent members has a veto over it. This is their first line of defence against the American hyper-power. So as long as the United States alone has the power of unilateral action, they are enthusiastic defenders of the UN system as it now is. 

But sentiment is changing. Partly as a result of the international community’s supine indifference to the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, the UN is being asked to accept an ‘international obligation to protect the innocent’. This qualifies the principle of national sovereignty with a behaviour test. Sovereignty will be deemed to lapse if a state behaves too badly towards its own people –ie., starts murdering or starving them to death. The UN has also asked member states to commit to ambitious ‘Millennium Development Goals’, such as cutting world poverty in half by 2015. 

Few would object to this ‘humanitarian’ extension of the UN’s mandate. The problem is the attempt to marry it to the ‘war against terrorism’, a much more contentious matter, especially for Muslim countries. It is made more so by the western belief that terrorism is bred out of poverty, and poverty stems from the lack of western values and standards of ‘governance’. The ‘war on terrorism’ thus links protection of the innocent (including anti-poverty programmes) to the spread of democracy. This is the essence of the Blair-Bush doctrine. And it is what makes most UN members suspicious. 

It is one thing to say that you want to stop mass murder, help countries overcome poverty and disease, and put them on the development path. It is another thing to say that poverty, disease, environmental degradation, civil wars, and so on are security threats. Because that opens the door to military intervention. 

The opening for military thinking is most clearly seen in the Bush doctrine of ‘pre-emption’, or anticipatory strike. ‘Pre-emption’ is part of the inherent right of self-defence. But, by well-established convention, the threat of attack must be ‘imminent’. This requires not just the possession of weapons but an intention to use them. However, the new Bush security doctrine stretches US self-defence to cover defence against potential threats.A civil nuclear energy programme can be seen as such a threat. So can a dictatorship. When the two are combined you have a case for preventive war. This logic is now being tested out in Iran and North Korea. 

Bush and Blair fervently believe that the most potent latent threats come from countries that have not adopted the western ‘norms’ of democracy, freedom, and markets. Carried to its logical conclusion the Blair-Bush view would make regime change an integral part of western security. 

That is why this week’s New York gathering of world leaders will sign a bit of paper full of good intentions, but no commitments. . UN reform will remain blocked as long as humanitarian motives are entangled with security ones. Far better to change the Charter so as to make mass murder an additional ground for authorized intervention, leaving the Blair-Bush doctrine of ‘pre-emption’ to the harsh test of reality. 

For more articles from the same source, visit the Vedomosti website.

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