AS tensions escalate on the Korean Peninsula, and two juvenile leaders in Pyongyang and Washington shake their fists at each other, the world wonders if we are on the path to yet another war involving the United States. For a change, the UN Security Council is firm in its resolve to force North Korea to stop further development of its nuclear and missile capability. But even if some members had chosen to veto the resolution to impose crippling sanctions, the United States, Britain and France would have proceeded to put the squeeze on the recalcitrant Kim Jong-Un.
Over the last 20 years, the UN has become decreasingly relevant to global conflict resolution. From the invasion and occupation of Iraq to the current Western, Turkish and Arab involvement in the Syrian civil war, the UN has been bypassed and ignored when an inconvenient veto was exercised by one or more members of the Security Council. Thus, when Bush and Blair failed to obtain an enabling resolution to pursue their invasion of Iraq, the two went ahead anyway. The fact that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has failed to embarrass hawkish leaders in any way. Nor is there a mechanism in place to punish warmongers who break international law. Even the International Court of Justice has looked the other way.
And yet the whole notion that wars need approval by an international body is relatively recent. Until a century ago, wars were fought to settle claims over loans or land. History as well as old myths are full of kings and princes riding off to do glorious battle to rescue (or obtain) a beautiful princess, or to slay an evil foe. Wars of succession were commonplace. The insane slaughter that was the First World War was caused by the assassination of a German archduke in Sarajevo.
After this bloody conflict that led to millions of deaths, world leaders resolved to establish a mechanism that would prevent war. The instrument of this idealism was the League of Nations that was born after the Versailles Treaty was signed soon after the end of the war. But the League proved unequal to the task, partly because America failed to ratify the treaty although it had been in the forefront of nations pushing the plan. But when Japan invaded Manchuria, and the Italians invaded Ethiopia, the League was unable to stop them. Soon, the whole project collapsed.
It took the Second World War and 60 million deaths to concentrate minds and stiffen spines. Over the last seven decades, the United Nations has kept a semblance of peace, even though its record has been far from perfect. On balance, however, it has been a force for good, providing states with a forum where grievances can be aired. Leaders can vent in the General Assembly instead of settling scores on the battlefield. Of course there have been many failures as big powers use their clout, while weaker countries complain about double standards.
But then nobody said this was a perfect or just world. At least the frequency of wars decreased, and a global system of laws and rules was put in place. This, then, was the “new world order”, as against what Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro call the “old world order” in a recent article in The Guardian. In that era, war was just another instrument of statecraft, to be used to right a real or perceived wrong. The concept of “just war” was evoked to distinguish between wars of aggression and wars fought for a righteous cause.
The man who gave these concepts an intellectual framework was a Dutch lawyer, Hugo Grotius. Writing in the 17th century, he stated: “Where judicial settlement ends, war begins.” In the absence of an international body where conflicts could be resolved, rulers decided if and when to go to war to press a claim or settle a border dispute. Thus, ambitious or greedy warlords coveting their neighbours’ land or gold simply marched in and grabbed what they could. The history of our Subcontinent is replete with such examples, as is Europe’s blood-soaked past.
Compared to this era, the post-WW II, rules-based system is a huge improvement. But despite its benefits, it is in danger of collapse. Increasingly, it is unable to perform its peacekeeping role because all too often, the Security Council is gridlocked because of disagreements between its permanent members. Even when a resolution is passed, enforcing it depends on agreement and cooperation between members. Thus, resolutions demanding that Israel vacate Palestinian lands it had occupied in 1967 remain dead letters, ignored by Israel and its sponsor, the United States. Similarly, the resolution on Kashmir is ignored by both Pakistan and India.
Increasingly, states are taking matters into their own hands: witness Russian annexation of Crimea; the Chinese construction of military bases on disputed atolls in the South China Sea; and the repeated American attacks on Syrian soil. True, some of these unilateral military actions have been in response to provocations by non-state actors like the militant Islamic State group. But more and more, nations no longer feel constrained by international law.
The United States is the biggest contributor to UN finances, and thus far, its support has been critical to the world body’s qualified success. But Donald Trump has expressed his contempt for the organisation on numerous occasions, and might well reduce American funding. As it is, the UN is financially overstretched in an era of increasing refugee flows and humanitarian crises.
We may all criticise its failures, but the world is a better place with the UN than it would be without it. For all its flaws, the “new world order” is a big improvement over the old one.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017