After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council

After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council

After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council

After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council


The politics of legitimacy is central to international relations. When states perceive an international organization as legitimate, they defer to it, associate themselves with it, and invoke its symbols. Examining the United Nations Security Council, Ian Hurd demonstrates how legitimacy is created, used, and contested in international relations. The Council's authority depends on its legitimacy, and therefore its legitimation and delegitimation are of the highest importance to states.

Through an examination of the politics of the Security Council, including the Iraq invasion and the negotiating history of the United Nations Charter, Hurd shows that when states use the Council's legitimacy for their own purposes, they reaffirm its stature and find themselves contributing to its authority. Case studies of the Libyan sanctions, peacekeeping efforts, and the symbolic politics of the Council demonstrate how the legitimacy of the Council shapes world politics and how legitimated authority can be transferred from states to international organizations. With authority shared between states and other institutions, the interstate system is not a realm of anarchy. Sovereignty is distributed among institutions that have power because they are perceived as legitimate.

This book's innovative approach to international organizations and international relations theory lends new insight into interactions between sovereign states and the United Nations, and between legitimacy and the exercise of power in international relations.


In 2002, as the United States planned an attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power, American diplomats sought political support for the mission from all quarters. They pursued bilateral negotiations for the support of foreign governments; they approached NATO to aid in the defense of Turkey; they appealed directly to publics around the world; and they brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council. The Council, famously, came to play a central role in the diplomatic drama prior to the start of the war in March 2003. It was the forum for what turned out to be perhaps the most heated diplomatic confrontation in world politics since the Cuban Missile Crisis. For its efforts, the Council earned itself scathing criticism from all sides, both supporters of the war and opponents, and the camps agreed on the key point: that the Council had “failed” a crucial test. One side believed it had failed in its responsibilities by refusing to authorize the U.S.-led war, and the other believed it had failed by being unable to stop it. As a result, the Council was revealed to be “strategically irrelevant” to the United States, “morally bankrupt,” and “simply incompatible” with the new realities of world power. President George W. Bush himself implied that the Council had missed its last chance “to show its relevance.” The vehemence of the attacks on the Council matched the energy devoted in earlier stages to lobbying the Council over the terms of its resolutions on Iraq. Both activities were pursued with great vigor, reflecting the belief that great stakes were in play.

The controversy at the Council was over the legitimacy that comes from a Council resolution. The two camps were aiming for the same goal—to appropriate that legitimacy for themselves, although they intended to use it for opposite political purposes. When Kofi Annan claimed that the UN Security Council holds “unique legitimacy” to authorize military action, many states appeared to agree with him. Even the Americans apparently shared the belief that more countries would come to support the U.S. if the American position were legitimized by the Council. The American diplomatic effort prior to the war was shaped by the per-

Krauthammer 2003; Glennon 2003.

Press conference, February 23, 2003, Crawford, Texas.

Interview with Kofi Annan by BBC News, September 10, 2002, published at news

Tharoor 2003. Statements confirming the link between Council approval and third
country support for the invasion were made by Russia, Canada, most countries in the Euro
pean Union, India, and many others. For a useful summary, see the Observer (London),
January 12, 2003.

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