Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Great Power Security

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Great Power Security

Article excerpt


The change of administration in the US may have encouraged the belief that collective security will finally have its day.1 Critics of the Bush administration argued that the US intervention in Iraq was illegal because it had not received the authorization of the UN Security Council. Implicit in this argument was the idea diat relying on collective security methods, rather than great power politics and the use of force, would have produced better outcomes for the US and for global welfare. The Afghanistan War, by contrast, did receive the UN Security Council's implicit consent and has been blessed by the Obama administration as a "good" war. On other difficult international problems as well, such as Iran's nuclear weapons program, the US has turned to international institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Security Council to achieve its foreign policy goals.

A conventional wisdom also seems to be emerging among many, if not most, academics in international law that the strengthening of the UN security system would advance international peace and security. Although the twentyfirst century has brought radically different security threats from those that existed when die UN Charter was first written, many seem to believe that concentrating authority in the Security Council remains the most effective international legal process for the use of force. Some academics who think this share the views of Kofi Annan, who launched a proposal near the end of his time as Secretary-General to expand die legitimate purposes for the use of force, but to retain a strict process for authorizing those uses. In his 2005 report, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All, Annan allowed that nations may use force more broadly to confront new threats to international peace and security, such as terrorism, rogue nations, and human rights catastrophes, but refused to change the Security Council's monopoly on the audiorization of the use of force beyond diat required for self-defense.2 The only real issue left for debate was whedier to expand the permanent members of the Security Council to include countries such as Japan, India, and Brazil. It is also worth discussing, though Annan's report did not address the matter, whether to give any new permanent members of the Council a veto.

Resurrecting the formal UN Charter rules on the use of force, however, or even modifying them in the way suggested by the former Secretary-General, would have the perverse effect of making international peace and security more difficult to achieve. Instead of bringing collective security, the UN Charter system only exacerbates the collective action problems inherent in solving the security challenges of the twenty-first century. The UN Charter system has never really worked; from the beginning, it represented a quixotic effort to end the great power system that had governed international politics since the midseventeenth century. A continued reliance on, if not a return to, cooperation and coordination by the great powers remains the better hope - imperfect though it may be - for managing problems of international security in this century.

Section II of this Article sets the context by describing the great power system and the effort to replace it with collective security. Section III describes the rules and operation of the UN Charter system, today's formal version of collective security. Section IV explains why the current threats facing nations will not be solved through the UN Charter, but more likely through a reinvigoration of the great powers and their right to set the rules for the use of force.


The rise of great power politics is traditionally traced to the Peace of Westphalia of 1 648. That great settlement, as is commonly thought, recognized nation-states as the basic actors of the international system, replacing the universalist claims of multiethnic entities like the Holy Roman Empire. …

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