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The U.N. Effect

Obama’s quest for ‘international legitimacy’ makes for a dishonest Libya policy

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The words matter. When the George W. Bush administration found itself having to rethink American security strategy on the fly in the aftermath of an unprecedentedly devastating attack by a nonstate actor, the vehicle for doing so quickly became the drafting of the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. An argument over words is not policy, but the result can certainly go a long way toward shaping policy. The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is a recurring example: Pentagon policy battles always hark back to the principles adduced in the latest QDR.

The Obama administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy is rightly understood as an exercise in distinguishing its approach to security from that of the preceding administration​—​less unilateral than Bush, more focused on institutions and institution-building than Bush, more inclined toward engagement than Bush, a less truculent tone than Bush. True, there has been more continuity in policy with Bush than his critics would ever have imagined, from Guantánamo to Iraq to Afghanistan, but the rationale of policies has shifted in accordance with the new strategy document. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is similarly a document that spells out a vision, a world without nuclear weapons, meant to guide policy. And Hillary Clinton has instituted her new State Department QDDR, modeled on the Pentagon document, with the D’s in this case standing for “Diplomacy and Development.” Documents such as these are simultaneously the work product of an internal process, often involving heated dispute, by which an administration has clarified its own views, as well as the architectural structure governing consideration of future policy questions. Collectively, they come as close as possible to an answer to the question of what a U.S. administration really thinks.

The reason such documents can carry so much weight is that they ultimately bear the president’s personal imprimatur. When senior officials cannot resolve a dispute over strategy and doctrine among themselves, it goes to the president for consideration and reconciliation. Unity is imposed from the top. And at the level of specific policy questions, such as war and peace, presidential speechwriters, spokesmen, and senior officials draw on these statements to elucidate the principles on which policy rests.

The United Nations Security Council is an entirely different animal. There is no top, and therefore no imposition of unity. The council takes decisions by majority vote, but five powers have a veto and thus wield vastly more influence. Fundamentally, the outcome is a negotiated instrument reflecting the agreement of sovereign states, some being more equal than others. There is no “executive branch”; the U.N. secretary-general is emphatically not president of the world. Implementation of Security Council resolutions falls almost entirely to states and organizations of states.

The United States can set strategy and policy for itself and then decide on means to implement it. The Security Council, by contrast, “decides” only on ends and then asks states to come up with means. The U.S. government also has the capability of assessing available means and devising policy in accordance with a realistic assessment of what is achievable. The United Nations has to rely at best on promises from states about what they might do. In pursuit of a policy, the United States has the capacity (not to say it’s easy) for self-correction, adjusting means or reassessing ends. The Security Council can pass new resolutions in response to changing circumstances, but until it does, its last resolution is carved in stone in terms of what it authorizes, regardless of changes on the ground.

Except, of course, that a Security Council resolution is anything but carved in stone, in the sense that its meaning depends to a significant degree on interpretation by governments, which include both policy-makers and lawyers of varying national influence. States have their own agendas that often affect interpretations. Factions within governments may have different views about the best course for policy and cloak their infighting in terms of an interpretation of legality of conduct under the terms of a resolution. Recall that in early 2003, opinion about whether another Security Council resolution was necessary to authorize going to war against Iraq divided rather neatly according to whether a state was ready to act at once or preferred to wait.

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