The United Nations Facing a Fork in the Road: Kennedy Graham Calls for a New Approach to Thinking about Security in the Changed International Arena

By Graham, Kennedy | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

The United Nations Facing a Fork in the Road: Kennedy Graham Calls for a New Approach to Thinking about Security in the Changed International Arena


Graham, Kennedy, New Zealand International Review


Throughout history, human societies of every kind have sought, above all, to ensure their own safety. The building of an 'architecture of peace' has become the institutional aspiration through which humanity might avoid warfare and live together in a secure and dignified order. In the modern era of the past four centuries, nation-states have sought, in various ways, to construct that architecture.

The 20th century saw early experimentation in global governance. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations have attempted to construct an emerging order among nation-states through three cardinal tenets--universality of membership, the rule of law and proscription on the unilateral and arbitrary use of force. Through the century the multilateral system became universal but the twin pillars of this prototype global architecture--the pacific settlement of disputes and collective security measures to contain unauthorised conflict--were undermined by two phenomena: doctrinal limitation and structural change.

The doctrinal weaknesses of the system are familiar yet seemingly intractable. The veto power, granted to all in the League and to five major powers in the UN system, continues to hamper a balanced and effective global policy-making. The lack of compulsory jurisdiction of international law encourages disregard for the requirements of serf-restraint in national behaviour and international relations. The continued possession of nuclear weapons exacerbates the natural asymmetry of military might, curbing the potential of collective security and threatening the planet in ways scarcely conceivable in mid-century. And the provision of self-defence as the sole recourse to force beyond collective security has ballooned over the years into the principal justification for its use.

As the international community struggles to cope with these weaknesses, it is increasingly faced with the need to adapt to structural change in the system itself. Three developments make the world different from that for which institutional redemption was designed half a century ago:

* Inter-state aggression has been curbed but intra-state conflict gives rise to complex national and regional emergencies.

* At the global strategic level tensions have intensified on an intercivilisational basis.

* Private groups have entered the security arena, at the regional level through mercenary and illicit trading activity, and at the strategic level through a dissident ideological challenge to the global establishment.

Specific attention

Even the individual is now a subject of specific attention in global governance, through the jurisdictional reach of an international criminal court and the executive power of Security Council arrest warrants and smart sanctions. Today, the security environment has not only become more fluid, unpredictable and dangerous; it is no longer shaped solely by states.

Thus the brief post-Cold War optimism has rapidly given way to a subliminal dread of future events. Bipolar rivalry has mutated into unipolar hegemony. Initially the international community responded to an 'assertive multilateralism' in which the superpower would lead it to the common ends envisioned in the UN Charter. But structural change has taken its toll. Intra-state implosions through societal failure and ethnic slaughter defeated a sustainable collective will for conflict management, spelling the end of 'new world order' visions of the traditional kind. And the declaration of jihad against a forward Western military presence and the accompanying attacks on the global establishment have shaken the foundations of the international system to its core. The response by the establishment itself has been equally ferocious, posing a qualitative challenge to the contemporary international order.

Contemporary challenge

Like any architectural design 60 years on, the United Nations is showing signs of age. …

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