The Magazine

Waiting for the U.N.

The Obama administration embraces international paralysis.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JOHN YOO
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Though it poses a more difficult military problem, Iran presents the more direct legal case. Iran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt any work on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It seems beyond doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons under cover of a peaceful civilian energy program in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran supports terror groups throughout the Middle East and it sells weapons and knowledge to other rogue states, such as North Korea and Syria. It has served as a base for insurgents who killed American soldiers in Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and has plotted to kill a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil. Like the regimes in Syria and Libya, the mullahs in Iran feel little reluctance to oppress their people to stay in power.

Fostering regime change in Iran would promote American interests and enhance global welfare. Iran seeks to export its fundamentalist revolution throughout the region. It stokes the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Its president promises to destroy Israel. It interferes with Iraq’s young democracy. It has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports travels. It has attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf. A nuclear Iran could give the mullahs regional military superiority and immunity from American conventional attack, which would allow it to expand its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize its neighbors.

But Republicans should draw a broader contrast with Obama’s foreign policy than just Syria and Iran. They should reject the idea that the United States’s right to protect its security, advance its interests, and foster international stability must pass a “global test” (as John Kerry put it in the 2004 elections). While the U.N. can certainly play a helpful role, it has not become the mechanism for collective security that President Franklin Roosevelt hoped for at the end of World War II. It has become an obstacle, rather than a handmaid, to international peace.

The U.N. Charter guarantees the “territorial integrity” and “political independence” of every nation. It doesn’t matter whether the member is a market democracy or a brutal dictatorship. Article 2(4) and 51 of the charter prohibits the use of force except in self-defense, which international officials and legal scholars generally believe prohibits war except when an attack has occurred or is imminent. The only solution to looming, but not immediate, threats to national security or global stability is to turn to the Security Council for help. Security Council approval, however, has produced mostly feebleness. The charter gives the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China a veto over any Security Council decision. China and Russia oppose interference in what they consider “internal” affairs, such as the repression of political and economic freedoms by authoritarian regimes. They can usually be counted on to protect other nondemocratic regimes, as they did in Iraq in 2003 and have done so far in Syria.

Making the case for unilateral U.S. military action would only return us to the state of affairs that prevailed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union prevented the United Nations from combating threats to global welfare. The United States waged war with the U.N.’s blessing in Korea (thanks to a Soviet boycott of the vote), the 1991 Gulf war, Somalia, and Haiti, but it would have acted without it. The United States acted on its own during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam war, the 1980s interventions in Central America, Grenada, Libya, and Panama, covert operations in Afghanistan and other places during the Cold War, and Kosovo in the 1990s.

In these places, the United States did not just advance its own interests, it also benefited global welfare by containing the spread of communism and ending human rights catastrophes. By contrast, the U.N. offers the empty promise that it can police the world if nations give up their right to go to war. But the U.N. possesses no armed forces, has a crippled decision-making system, and lacks political legitimacy. As a defender of the status quo, the U.N. tries to prohibit efforts by the United States and its allies to spread democracy and capitalism and to stop nations from oppressing their own people. The U.N. has become obsolete: It was designed to stop the massive interstate conflicts of World Wars I and II, but the number of conflicts of this kind has dropped to some of the lowest levels since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Its bias for the status quo impedes solutions to the primary security threats of the 21st century: rogue nations, international terrorist groups, humanitarian disasters, and WMD proliferation.

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