Five to Rule Them All: An Excerpt
Sarah Noonan, Intern
Yesterday David L. Bosco blogged for us about Obama’s speech in front of the UN General Assembly. Below is an excerpt from his new book, Five To Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of The Modern World, which tells the inside story of this remarkable diplomatic creation, illuminating the role of the Security Council in the postwar world, and making a compelling case for its enduring importance. In the excerpt below we are introduced to the Security Council.
The Security Council is like no other body in history. Its five permanent members-China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States-account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s population and more than 40 percent of global economic output. In military affairs, their dominance is even more overwhelming. They control more than 26,000 nuclear warheads, 99% of all those in existence. They have a combined 5.5 million men and women in arms. When the Council is united, its members can wage war, impose blockades, unseat governments, and levy sanctions, all in the name of the international community. There are almost no limits to the body’s authority.
The council usually meets in the UN headquarters complex on New York’s East River, but it has greater power and authority than the rest of the sprawling organization. The council is a creature of great-power politics, not international bureaucracy. It is built on the assumption that five of the strongest nations have the right and duty to safeguard the globe. Most of the UN structure insists that member states are equal; the council, by contrast, grants the most powerful countries special rights and responsibilities.
The idea that the great powers should chaperone the world is not new. Coalitions of powerful nations-including the Congress of Vienna and the Holy Alliance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-have tried before. The Geneva-based League of Nations, inaugurated in 1920, was the world’s answer to the horror of the First World War. It constituted the first fully developed world political organization, and it had a council of major powers charged with preserving the peace. The league and its council died prematurely when they failed to prevent an even more devastating war, but the idea of a world organization endured.
During its almost seven decades of operation, the UN Security Council has launched a broad range of diplomatic, legal, and even military initiatives to provide order. Since the late-1980s, its activities have increased dramatically. The council has blessed armed interventions in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Kuwait. It has imposed sanctions on the regimes in Serbia, Libya, and Sudan; launched war crimes courts to try sitting heads of state; and targeted terrorist finances. During the Cold War, the United States usually felt comfortable exercising its military power without the council’s permission. No longer. Even the George W. Bush administration-with its deep skepticism of the United Nations-worked to get the council’s approval for its policies. For many, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq demonstrated the perils of operating without the council’s blessing, and the body has emerged from the imbroglio active and relevant. In 2007, the council authorized peacekeeping missions that involved more than 100,000 troops from dozens of nations. From nuclear proliferation to the global war against terrorism to genocide in Africa, the council is often the cockpit for global politics.
Yet even the council’s vigorous post-Cold War activity has fallen well short of effective global governance. Atrocities and crimes against humanity still plague many parts of the globe. Entire countries have collapsed, and in so doing they have exported refugees, drugs, and radicalism. Since the 1980s, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have tested nuclear weapons while the council watched. These shortcomings have led to frequent and angry charges that it is feckless, impotent, and unprincipled. More than a few commentators have charged that the United Nations and its council are an impediment rather than an aid to world order.
The council’s new activism has stirred hopes that it will assure world order, stop atrocities, and counter global threats like terrorism and weapons proliferation. Yet it exists in a world of realpolitik. Its members are, above all, powerful states with their own diverging interests. Time and again, the council’s performance has dashed hopes that its members would somehow rise above their narrow interests and work together to establish a more peaceful and just world.