DEBATE OPENED LAST WEEK in the Fifty-fourth United Nations General Assembly, highlighted in the media by President Clinton's annual address. But Secretary General Kofi Annan had made the real news even before the session started, by publicly proclaiming that only the U.N. Security Council can legitimately authorize the use of force in international affairs. Indeed, the most noteworthy aspect of the president's otherwise pedestrian speech was his implicit endorsement of the Annan doctrine.

Annan first publicly broached this new doctrine during the air campaign over Yugoslavia. Not only had that campaign not been authorized by the Security Council, if the United States and its European partners sought a U.N. resolution to intervene, it would almost certainly have been vetoed by Russia and China. Furthermore, if the Security Council were considered the sole arbiter of just intervention, any use of force that lacked its imprimatur would be illegitimate. Aware of likely opposition, NATO acted on its own authority in Yugoslavia.

On a visit to the war zone, Annan said at the time: "Unless the Security Council is restored to its preeminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy." Subsequently, in the secretary general's annual report to the U.N. membership, Annan returned to this theme, arguing that "enforcement actions without Security Council authorization threaten the very core of the international security system. . . . Only the [U.N.] Charter provides a universally legal basis for the use of force." These are sweeping -- indeed breathtaking -- assertions, made all the bolder by the fact that the U.N. Charter describes the secretary general as merely a "chief administrative officer."

But not only is the Annan doctrine limitless in its purported reach, it greatly inhibits America's ability (and everyone else's, for that matter) to use force to protect and advance its vital national interests. Such a limitation was never seriously advanced, and certainly not accepted, when the Senate considered the U.N. Charter in 1945. Indeed, during the Cold War, Americans would have greeted such statements by a U.N. secretary general with derision. Why did President Clinton allow Annan's assertions to go unrebuked and even support them, albeit implicitly, during his address to the General Assembly?

The Annan doctrine is clearly the result of post-Cold War wishful thinking. The absence of a visible threat, previously supplied by the Soviet Union, has led dreamers in the international strata to believe that force is no longer a serious option for responsible nations, except to swat the occasional dictator and prevent human rights abuses. The somewhat less dreamy do not ask such naive questions, but nonetheless see in the Annan doctrine an opportunity to dramatically limit the military autonomy of nation-states, particularly the United States.

The restraint of choice among these international actors is the Security Council, but they are happy also to use new institutions and treaties such as the International Criminal Court and the International Land Mine Convention. The implicit premise of the Annan doctrine -- that force is unimportant while "international law" is practically everything -- is widely held in Europe, but is also popular here, particularly in the Clinton administration. Although more an enthusiasm than a doctrine, this view is becoming very important as a force driving policy.

Wishful thinking about the United Nations, as mentioned, ran into a wall of reality in Kosovo. But instead of leaving the dreamers to their dreams, Clinton has felt compelled to justify the NATO intervention. In his speech before the General Assembly last week, he effectively submitted the Yugoslav campaign to the judgment of the Security Council, seeking its post facto blessing. Thus, he argued that NATO acted legitimately in Kosovo because it acted in the interest of the Security Council.

First, Clinton pointed out, the Security Council had condemned the Serbian atrocities, one of the stated reasons for the NATO campaign; hence the cause was just. Second, though NATO acted without Council authority, "we helped to vindicate the principles and purposes of the U.N. Charter"; hence the motives were pure. Third, NATO's action gave "the U.N. the opportunity it now has to play the central role in shaping Kosovo's future"; hence the result was right. While the president's willingness to argue that the end justifies the means should not surprise any careful student of his administration, what is surprising in his speech is that he showed any deference to the Security Council's supposed authority over NATO action.

The correct American response, for those who supported the NATO campaign, is: "We did not need the Security Council's permission to act. Besides, the Security Council was paralyzed and therefore useless for our purposes." In the Persian Gulf crisis, had President Bush not obtained Council authorization to use force against Iraq, he would have made precisely this case to support the U.S.-led coalition's subsequent assault. President Clinton's failure to make this case is neither accidental nor simply cordial, a case of being polite to the secretary general in the chamber of the General Assembly. He effectively accepted the Annan doctrine's logic.

With a lame-duck administration, we need not dwell on what the president's speech will mean in practice. Instead, with a national election a little more than a year away, we should insist that candidates in both parties address Annan's challenge. This is not just a theoretical debate. In the long run, it is far more important than the issue of American arrears to the United Nations, which the media never tire of. If the Annan doctrine is left unanswered, we will soon hear about "emerging new international norms" that will make it harder and harder for the United States to act independently in its own legitimate national interest. And we will wait in vain for our adversaries to follow those "norms."

John R. Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. He served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in the Bush administration.

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