How is the UN Security Council Doing?
On the eve of President Obama taking the chair at the Security Council, David Bosco takes on a few of the common assumptions about the Council over at Foreign Policy. I largely agree with Bosco’s quick (and yes, Ken, “breezy” – it seems to be a quality FP is promoting these days!) take on the central themes: (1) the Council does a lot more and is a great deal busier than the average observer gives it credit for, and despite the demands of deliberation, moves much faster now than during the Cold War; (2) Obama may (or may not) rely on the Council more than Bush (this point is largely contingent on the success of Obama’s broader reengagement with the UN; (3) the question of “legal” powers of the Council to regulate the use of force is largely irrelevant; (4) the question of reforming the veto is also irrelevant since the veto is here to stay; and (5) expansion of Council membership will not necessarily increase its legitimacy.
Bosco is, of course, right about the effect that daily consultation and deliberation among the world powers has on maintaining peace and security. This is a “talk is good”/constructivist view of the Council:
[P]lenty of the council’s frenetic efforts have required tortuous negotiation, but as it turns out, talk is an important aspect of what the council does. Achieving consensus among the council’s five veto-wielding permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China — is rarely easy. Each power has a unique set of interests and relationships that it seeks to protect. Even when the permanent five (P5) members can agree, they have to convince at least four of the elected council members in order to take formal action. Frustrating though it can be, that process — of the major powers talking to each other day after day — is one of the council’s principal contributions to international stability. Through sheer repetition, the Security Council has instilled a culture of great-power consultation and compromise that may be as important to international peace as any peacekeeping mission, sanctions regime, or war crimes investigation.
Major powers (and plenty of minor ones) have taken military action again and again without the council’s approval. Plenty of these actions have been misguided, but others have been necessary. The United States itself used force without council approval under the Bill Clinton administration when it launched airstrikes in 1999 to force Serbia to relinquish the disputed province of Kosovo. Earlier this month, President Obama sent commandos into Somalia to hunt down suspected terrorists without stopping to ask for a council debate and resolution on the subject. Certain purists may insist that all these actions were illegal and illegitimate, but the actual practice of international relations matters more than legal doctrine. The Security Council is an important avenue to international legitimacy, but certainly not the only one. Regional organizations like NATO, the European Union, and the African Union will often be alternatives. The Kosovo operation, for example, was endorsed by NATO rather than by the Security Council.
I would add that the “actual practice of international relations” can become international law. Bosco’s formulation of politics/international relations as separate from international law reflects, perhaps, some of the doctrinal walls that still exist between the two academic disciplines. In the wake of these recent examples of non-UN-authorized operations, the struggle for both disciplines is finding an appropriate framework through which to reconcile “legitimacy” and “legality” of the use force.