Hiding behind the UN

What's driving America's newfound enthusiasm for multilateral institutions?

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

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Before getting elected in December 2000, George W Bush’s team said it would pursue a unilateral foreign policy.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in January 2000, Bush’s security adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that ‘foreign policy in a Republican administration will…proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community’. A bit of tub-thumping unilateralism was always going to go down well on the Republican campaign trail.

But once it was elected, the Bush presidency found it difficult to put this go-it-alone Americanism into practice. Since 11 September 2001, US foreign policy has embraced a multilateral approach, and this has been evident in its dealings over Iraq. The view, often expressed by British Labour MPs – that it was UK prime minister Tony Blair who persuaded Bush to pursue the UN route on Iraq – underestimates Bush’s newfound enthusiasm for the international community that Condoleezza Rice had previously dismissed as ‘illusory’.

When introducing The National Security Strategy of the USA in September 2002 Bush noted how the USA was ‘committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations’ (1). And when he addressed the idea of seeking a second UN resolution on Iraq, on 31 January 2003, he proudly reminded his audience that he ‘was the guy that went to the UN in the first place’ (2).

Bush’s willingness to walk the UN route is in stark contrast to the approach adopted by previous US presidents. When secretary of state Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003, on the danger to world peace posed by Saddam Hussein, many commentators looked for parallels with Adlai Stevenson’s Security Council presentation during the Cuban Missile Crisis Debate of 1962.

Of course Powell’s grainy photos of alleged al-Qaeda training camps, that have subsequently been shown to be occupied by harmless villagers, were not comparable to Stevenson’s incontrovertible photographic evidence of Soviet missiles being stationed on Cuba. But more significant was the fact that Powell addressed the UN with the aim of seeking advance approval for proposed American action. Stevenson addressed the Security Council the day after President Kennedy had unilaterally imposed a naval blockade of Cuba, something that left the Soviet ambassador huffing about ‘undisguised piracy’ and a breach of international law (3). In 1962, the US administration did not seek UN approval to deal with ‘offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction’ because in 1962 America did not lack self-belief and the rest of the Western world united behind it.

America’s indifferent attitude towards the UN over the Cuban crisis typified its traditional approach. It would seek UN support for military action if it could get it, but bypass the UN if it could not. In its first eight years the UN was widely seen as an instrument of US diplomacy. The Soviet Union’s temporary withdrawal from the Security Council, in protest at the UN’s pro-Western sympathies, and the UN’s Security Council exclusion of the new communist government in China, enabled America to get UN authorisation for military action in Korea in 1950.

During the Cold War, it would have been unthinkable that America would have found it necessary to obtain UN authority for its many military interventions. In fact, even since the end of the Cold War most American military interventions, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan, have been taken without specific UN authorisation. America’s lack of interest in UN authorisation was exemplified by the fact that, since 1991, Britain and America have regularly bombed Iraq, to enforce the no-fly zones, without any specific UN mandate.

Today, America and the Western world face no power that is remotely comparable to that of the Soviet Union and the Eastern block during the Cold War. Saddam’s Iraq has as much in common with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union as a sand dune has with a mountain. Yet the Bush administration, week after week, humbles itself by seeking UN authorisation for military action against Iraq.

By putting UN authorisation to the fore of their campaign against Iraq, the US and UK governments are highlighting an important shift in international relations. No longer does America have the authority and self-belief to assert itself in the world and to win the support of other Western states. To compensate for this weakness, the USA seeks support for its actions through multilateral institutions like the UN.

Many welcome this shift away from unilateralism towards multilateralism. But when it comes to war, are we to believe that a two-thirds majority in the UN Security Council makes intervention right? Never before has it been seriously argued that a war becomes right and just merely because the UN Security Council authorises it. On the face of it, it is a puzzling argument that claims to invest 20 states – five with a right of veto, and one with considerable power and influence over 15 of them – with the moral authority to declare a war to be right.

If a war is just, as those in support of it argue, on the grounds of self-defence then the war would be just whether or not the Security Council authorised it. Similarly, if the war is not just then no number of votes on the Security Council would make it right. But this is not a point that the anti-war movement has marshalled. Most of the anti-war movement has made the need for UN authorisation the focus of its campaigning. With an opposition like this it is not surprising that the Bush and Blair governments have invested so much energy and cash into securing support from Security Council members (4).

In the early days of international relations, writers like St Augustine and Grotius developed the idea that the use of force by states was governed by the Just War doctrine. Philosophers since then have grappled with this idea and have sought to explain what makes a war just. Today, a coalition from Bush and Blair through to many in the peace movement has come up with a simple solution: a war is just if the UN Security Council says so.

This may be a simple solution, but investing the UN Security Council with moral authority merely shows the moral bankruptcy of those who advocate it.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister (email He contributed the essay ‘Humanitarian intervention and the recasting of international law’ to the book Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics, Palgrave, 2003. Buy this book from Amazon UK.

Read on:

Don’t mention the U-word, Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) The National Security Strategy of the USA, 17 September 2002

(2) Saddam gets six more weeks, Guardian, 1 February 2003

(3) United Nations: Cuban Missile Crisis Debate 1962

(4) ‘United States must dig deep to pay the price for loyalty’, The Times (London), 21 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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