The United Nations was established in 1945 primarily as a collective security organisation, with an ancillary aspiration towards the security of individuals. This is reflected in the opening words of the Prologue to the Charter. In latter years, this broader aspiration towards human security has been reflected in the formal adoption by the General Assembly of the policy report ‘Responsibility to Protect’. This envisaged collective intervention in cases of oppression or genocide but the notion has always been in tension with the fundamental Charter principle of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states’.
The project of suppressing aggression has never worked well. Notwithstanding nearly seventy years of aggression, of one sort or another, there have been only two examples of UN action (Korea and Iraq) and both of these depended on an international fluke. In the first case, the Soviet Union was engaged in a boycott of the UN over the non-seating of mainland China and was thus unable to veto the Korean intervention. The 1990 decision to oppose the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait corresponded to the brief honeymoon which followed the collapse of communism. The present UN ‘RTP’ intervention in Libya is also very likely to prove to have been a one-off. Prominent members of the Security Council are either luke-warm, or passively antagonistic.
But the crucial factor that will determine that that there will be no more interventions against aggression, or genocide, or in support of human rights, is the impending withdrawal of the one state on which it has always depended: the United States. Contemporary political developments in that country are producing a majority consensus of right and left against intervention abroad in any circumstances beyond those which bear directly on national security. In substantial part, this situation is a product of the dire financial plight in which America finds itself, which means it can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. There is a second factor, and that is the persistent criticism of what is sometimes called, ‘American exceptionalism’, and the ubiquitous anti-Americanism which characterises so much of the trivial commentary on international affairs, in countries, like our own, whose interests (in terms of security or protection of human rights) have been served, down through the years, by the actions of the United States. There is an adage which I think originates with Nial Ferguson, ‘be careful what you wish for, you may get it’. We may be at the point of a prime example.
If I am right, this development towards American isolationism, will take us back to a time (nearly three-quarters of a century ago) when the Western world was pleading with the United States to take a part in resisting aggression, which it eventually did. (What Churchill later (WW2) called, ‘the New World coming to the aid of the old’). This resulted (after WW1) in the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, which, of course, failed precisely because it could not deal with aggression (at that time by Italy and Japan).
For the contemporary world, the question is, who will now resist potential genocide (as in Kosovo in 1999)? NATO, without the US? I don’t think so. As retiring US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates has recently observed, only a minority of the membership of NATO are actually contributing to the UN-authorised operation in Libya and those that are, are running out of both ammunition and will (and they are also strapped for cash).
So who do we think would lead United Nations operations against a future aggression (say, a repeat of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). China? Russia? To put the question is to identify an absurdity, although one might imagine the intervention of interested parties, on one side or the other. But that is the old ‘world order’, not the new. Again, who might lead a disinterested intervention to prevent the slaughter in a situation like that in Syria at the moment?
For countries like New Zealand, another question might be, ‘who would be a dependable ally in the event that our security in the South Pacific was threatened, as it was some sixty years ago?’ Australia? Certainly! But can we imagine that the United Nations would come to our aid? Or NATO? Probably not in both cases! And on present trends, possibly not the ally that saved us the last time! The ally that we so pointedly and proudly rejected in 1985! It is a thought that ought to give us pause.