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First casualties? NATO, the U.N.

/ Source: contributor

Even before air strikes shattered the early morning calm in Baghdad Thursday, the first casualties of the war to remove Saddam Hussein were apparent: the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Regardless of the outcome of the war, the future of these two organizations is now in doubt. Even more importantly, the vision that underpins them — the idea that great nations should work together to provide collective security — is now in question.

The U.N. and NATO were born out of the chaos and destruction of World War II, both very much the product of American diplomacy. They were intended, for the most part, to address the cardinal failure of the security environment between the world wars, a situation which left like-minded, democratic nations unable to come together and oppose aggression early, before the aggressor could act to destroy those nations one by one.

Neither the U.N. nor NATO ever intended to supersede the sovereign rights of member states to defend themselves against aggression. Even NATO, intended for the sole purpose of providing collective defense for its members, does not mandate that they go to war in the defense of one another. Rather, it requires consultations if another member is threatened. Member states retain both their freedom to act and their right to refrain from entering into conflicts — as dramatized during the alliance’s recent debacle over coming to Turkey’s aid.


The debate over disarming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is hardly the first crisis to raise questions about the continued ability of the U.N. to face down aggression. During the Cold War, the U.N.’s ability to enhance the security of the international system was nearly paralyzed by the rival political systems that marked that era.

What is surprising, however, is the trouble the U.N. has had acting effectively even after the U.S.-Soviet rivalry ended. Again and again during the 1990s, the U.N. appeared helpless to meet “unsanctioned” aggressions in places like Rwanda, Liberia, the Horn of Africa and, especially, in the Balkans.

The reasons for this were two-fold. Firstly, it reflected disagreements among the major powers on how to address conflicts and, particularly, over the legality and wisdom of intervening in civil conflicts raging inside the border of a sovereign member state.

Secondly, and more significantly, it reflected the inherent limitations of the institution. As a voluntary association of sovereign and equal states, the U.N. is at the service of each member. In effect, it cannot take sides, but must await a consensus of its members. In Bosnia and again in Kosovo, the United States and a coalition of like-minded states under the NATO umbrella bypassed the U.N. and initiated hostilities against Serbia.


President Bush characterized the inability of the U.N. to take action on Iraq as a failure of will, and many in the United States agree. Indeed, taking the final step needed to enforce its resolutions always has been the U.N.’s greatest weakness. But it is a weakness deliberately built into the U.N. structure. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson noted in 1951, the U.N. was “not something apart from its members. Its strength has no sources independent of the strength supplied by those who belong to it and are willing to back it up.” This weakness was also the basis for the U.N.’s survival during the difficult decades of the Cold War when the U.N. became a battleground between major powers with diametrically opposed world views that stymied collective action.

The U.N. was built on the hope of a common vision of the security needs of the world tempered by a strong dose of Realpolitik that recognized the vast differences in political perspectives and strategic views among the major powers. The reality that the U.N. was never intended to be a governing body is reflected in the veto power provided to the so-called Permanent Five members. The U.N. did not have to act; indeed it was unlikely to be allowed to do so, absent a unanimous consensus among the major powers. What is now self-evident is that no consensus exists.

What is clear, and frightening to some, is that different camps have emerged in the international system with rather diametrically opposed views about the basis for security in the 21st Century. One side, a radical faction led by France, Germany and Russia, believes in achieving security through the expansion of the powers of international regimes. They argue that only the U.N. can authorize war, in effect, giving the U.N. sovereign powers. The other side, led by the United States, is more traditional. It believes that the nation state is the sole source of sovereignty, hence retains always the right to make war in its own defense. It also believes that a political community is built on shared values, on a common will, and not simply on membership in a collective organization.


In truth, the struggle to forge a consensus on Iraq has not done fatal damage to the U.N. This is because the U.N. was never very strong. It was never a provider of international security. It could never lead, but rather had to follow the development of an international consensus on security issues. No consensus, no role for the U.N.

The damage to NATO, however, may be far greater. NATO has a clear mission, the common defense of its members. The members may disagree on many things. They may even have governments of radically different political persuasions. At one time NATO contained members governed by dictatorships, military juntas and left wing socialists. What allowed NATO to function was the commitment to the single goal.

The crisis over aid to Turkey - actually over consultations in advance of the actual provision of defensive capabilities to that country - struck at the very heart of the Alliance. The commitment of the members to consultations is, or at least was, thought to be sacrosanct. It was this commitment that ensured that no member could be “picked off” by an aggressor.

NATO is about to expand, allowing in new members who have not enjoyed the decades of peace and security enjoyed by the original members of the Alliance. What are they to make of the effort by France, Germany and Belgium to prevent consultations on Turkey’s defense requirements in the even of a war with Iraq? The value of NATO’s currency has been eroded by the inability of some members to put aside their particular differences in the interest of the collective good. The United States may feel content to pursue its goals alone, or with its closest ally, Britain, and any other European or Asian powers that may join in. Meanwhile, some observers wonder whether nations such as France have more sinister motives and welcomed a chance to weaken Alliance solidarity. This experience does not bode well for NATO’s future.

(Dan Goure, an NBC News military analyst and contributor, is senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.)