A Paper Tiger Gone Bad
A brief look at the post-Cold War history of the United Nations.
By Michael Brandon McClellan
April 15, 2005


WHILE SOON-TO-BE U.N. Ambassador John Bolton patiently endures rhetorical broadsides from Barbara Boxer, Joseph Biden, and their Senate colleagues for his alleged "disdain of the United Nations," it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on the merits and the track record of the U.N. security system. The United Nations is a diverse organization of many functions, but it was created for one primary purpose. As stated in the U.N. Charter's preamble, the organization was formed to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and to "maintain international peace and security." It is accordingly by such a standard that the United Nations' effectiveness must be judged.

United Nations enthusiasts often point to the fact that no general war between great powers has commenced during the U.N. era. Indeed, global conventional conflicts on the scale of World War I and World War II have not scarred the earth in the six decades since the writing of the U.N. Charter. While such restraint can be greatly attributed to the bipolarity of the Cold War, the deterrent effect of mutual assured destruction, and the subsequent emergence of American hegemony, proponents of the U.N. system can at least claim a correlative relation between the international body and the current enduring era of peace among the world's great powers.

Proponents of the UN can also point to the emergence of a global culture that condemns wars of aggression and imperialism. In the pre-World War I era, wars of limited expansion, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, and ambitious land-grabs, such as the European "scramble for Africa," were seen as entirely legitimate. Today such actions would be nearly universally condemned. In the contemporary chorus of popular opinion, Otto von Bismarck's calculated wars would not be heralded as great statesmanship, but rather denounced as detestable aggression.

This shift in global opinion was notably present in 1991. When Saddam Hussein's army poured over Kuwait's sovereign border to seize Kuwaiti oilfields, the United Nations and much of the world declared his actions illegal. This marked a substantial victory for those who had sought to de-legitimize aggressive military action and augment collective security. When the United States and its allies invaded to repulse the Iraqi aggressors, they were bolstered by the moral approbation of much of the world, as well as U.N. Security Council's approval. Many optimistically thought that a new post-Cold War era of collective security had finally arrived.

THIS OPTIMISM, however, would soon be shattered by the reality of geopolitics. While the "global community" mostly rose to defend Kuwait in 1991, it has largely failed to collectively defend anything since. Immediately following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein massacred his own Shiite and Kurdish populations while the United Nations stood by. In 1994, the United Nations did nothing while 800,000 people were hacked to death by machete-wielding Rwandans. Following that, the United Nations failed to act against a European genocide, when Slobodan Milosevic decided to ethnically cleanse Yugoslavia. In the final reckoning, the 1990s should have proved a sad disappointment to the U.N. faithful. Much as political and strategic rivalry side-lined the United Nations throughout the Cold War, so would self-interested considerations continue to obstruct U.N.-based collective security in the post-Cold War era.

WHEN AL QAEDA attacked on September 11, 2001, it momentarily appeared that another era of collective consensus had emerged. Leaders across the world denounced al Qaeda's actions and the U.N. Security Council authorized America's military response against the al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Yet, mimicking the Gulf War, this "authorization" revealed a distinct and familiar role for both the United States and the United Nations--namely, that of football team and marching band. While both the Gulf War and Afghanistan are heralded as moments of effective collective security at work, it is important to see them for what they are--moments of international approval accompanying the U.S. military's punishment of a rogue nation. In both cases of "U.N. success," it was the United States and its allies that restored "international peace and security," not the U.N. Security Council working in its collective capacity.

After permitting the United States to defend itself in Afghanistan, the United Nations has switched roles from that of cheerleader to that of heckler. When America continued pursuing the war on terror by deposing Saddam Hussein (after 12 years of ineffective U.N. Security Council resolutions) the United Nations put its foot down. Permanent Security Council members China, Russia, and France refused to endorse the mission to eliminate the Baathist threat in Iraq. Indeed, they went a step further, and sought to prevent the United States from taking military action.

It was a watershed moment in America's relationship with the international body it helped create. While the United Nations had proven largely ornamental in previous international crises, it was now proving decidedly obstructionist and hostile towards American strategic aims. While respecting a self-aggrandizing council is tolerable, paying obeisance to a hostile paper tiger is far less so.

SINCE ITS 2003 Iraq war antics, the United Nations has slid further down the slippery slope. It has continued to sit idly by in the face of grave security threats. The world now faces a nuclear North Korea, and barring an unforeseen development, a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. The world has witnessed the U.N.'s failure to prevent an African genocide (again), with 70,000 people perishing in the Sudanese province of Darfur. In the case of the Israeli security barrier, the United Nations has actually encouraged terrorist aggression. Its International Court of Justice ruled Israel's security fence illegal, in spite of four-year running "intifada" which has left thousands dead. Indeed, by seeking to deter those who would build a barrier in the face of terrorism, the United Nations has managed to almost perfectly pervert Edmund Burke's enduring principle--in the face of evil, the United Nations encourages good men to stand aside and do nothing.

If John Bolton does harbor some disdain towards the recent actions of the United Nations, it is important to view that disdain with some perspective. When a heretofore paper tiger begins undermining and opposing the foreign policy actions of the one nation which has consistently fought to ensure global peace and security, a little ambassadorial disdain may perhaps be in order.

Michael Brandon McClellan is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He runs the blog Port McClellan


Correction appended, 4/18/05: The article originally said, a four-year running intifada had left thousands of Israeli citizens dead. More than 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis have died during the intifada.

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