Tackling inter-state problems now at the global level


The UN has grown into the first universal organisation of states in history, writes Noel Dorr

The war in Iraq and the events which led to it raise a fundamental question: has the UN been discredited as a system of world order? If so, how will humanity organise itself to deal with the turbulent world of the 21st century?

We live today in a world of sovereign states. There are nearly 200 in all, large and small, rich and poor, strong and weak, each claiming, in principle at least, to be sovereign and independent.

It was not always like this. In the early 20th century European powers dominated much of the world. After the first World War new nations, claiming the right to "self-determination", emerged to independence; maps were redrawn; and the world of today began to take shape.

In the mid-20th century colonialism ended and scores of new states emerged, some peacefully and by agreement, others through bloody conflict. Now, at the start of the new century, it is plain that humanity, for the foreseeable future, will be organised into sovereign territorial states.

To speak of states as "sovereign" is to suggest that each is internally independent and that states in general are subject to no higher authority. But how then is conflict between states to be averted, and how are their competing interests, ambitions and rivalries to be mediated? Is power to be the only arbiter?

Europe, where our modern concept of the sovereign territorial state originated in the 17th century, was singularly unsuccessful in dealing with such questions. Wars, of increasing intensity, were a constant - and indeed an accepted - feature of international life for centuries. War was even said to be "the continuation of policy by other means".

During the 20th century wars became increasingly destructive, especially to civilians; and two European wars turned into global conflicts. During that same period the world reorganised itself as a world of states.

So now the problems of inter-state conflict which plagued Europe for centuries are replicated in magnified form at global level. And today we have an added concern: the future of the planet itself, the only place in the universe where we know life to exist.

In a world divided into 200 separate sovereignties who will see to the global interest? How will we preserve our environment, our atmosphere and the abundant life with which we share the Earth?

Twice in the last century after major wars victorious governments, inspired by an American president, tried to create an international structure to avert future wars. The first was the League of Nations which Woodrow Wilson pressed on the war-weary nations of Europe at the peace conference in 1919.

The league was a radical innovation in international life. Its aim was to end the kind of rival alliances which were blamed for the war just ended and establish instead a new principle of "collective security". This would be a kind of universal alliance of all member-states against war, given effect through standing international institutions and a code of rules for international society which all member-states would commit themselves to accept.

The league was important in its time but far from universal in its membership. Indeed, President Wilson, could not persuade his own country to join. It proved weak and fragile in the face of aggressive totalitarianism in the 1930s, and the world collapsed again into war.

Nevertheless, the idea of a collective security organisation had taken hold. At the height of the war four allied powers, the US, UK, the Soviet Union and China, were already planning a rather similar structure for the post-war world.

They drafted a charter in Washington in autumn 1944 and in April 1945 presented it to a conference in San Francisco of the 50 states then at war with Germany or Japan. The charter was adopted with modifications, and the UN was established on October 24th, 1945.

There are four points of interest about this second attempt to establish an organisation to avert conflict between states.

First, the founders saw it initially as a continuation of the wartime alliance which could act forcefully if necessary to prevent conflict in future. It has now grown into something new and different, the first universal organisation of states in human history.

Second, the charter was not devised by idealists. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, its main architects, were "hard-nosed" leaders engaged in total war who took time at major conferences in 1944 and 1945 to plan this new structure. We must assume that they took it seriously and believed it could work.

Third, the primary concern of the new organisation was "the maintenance of international peace and security". So its focus was on relations between states. Indeed, Article 2.7 of the charter specifically barred it from "intervening in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state".

Fourth, the charter is, nevertheless, imbued with broader ideas based on the liberal internationalism of the time. This allowed the UN and its extensive network of specialised agencies to undertake a wide range of activities in relation to human rights, refugees, development and many other issues.

Although the founders would not admit it, the UN structure was rather similar to that of the league.

It has two main institutions, the General Assembly and the Security Council. All 191 member-states are represented in the General Assembly. It may make recommendations and meets for three months each autumn to debate world issues. The Security Council, which is available to meet at any time, can take binding decisions. It has 15 members, five permanent and 10 elected for two-year terms.

The charter is essentially a code of conduct for relations between states, a kind of constitution for international society. It outlaws force except in two cases: where the Security Council acts itself, or authorises action by member-states, to preserve or restore international peace; or where a member-state subjected to attack uses force in self-defence but only until the council takes the necessary measures.

Under the charter all UN member-states "confer on the Security Council the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security". When it exercises this responsibility it has unprecedented powers: it may impose sanctions or authorise the use of force against an offending state; and all member-states are bound by its decisions.

It is a novel idea in international life that sovereign states should confer such authority on a body of which most are not members. But there are five powers which have retained a special position. The US, UK, France, Russia and China have permanent seats on the council, each with the right of veto.

This does not mean that even if all five agree they can force through a proposal since any resolution must receive at least nine votes if it is to pass. But it does means that any one of the five may block a proposal in the council by voting against it.

This special status is unfair, but it is also realistic. All five have strategic nuclear weapons. If the council, by majority vote, could authorise the use of force against such powers the result might be a nuclear war.

Noel Dorr is a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and from 1974 to 1983 was Irish permanent representative at the United Nations