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The Need for International Rules

A lecture to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies, Whitehall, London SW1, 6 July 2004.

There have been some rules - explicit or implicit - for relations between states ever since there have been states. The smaller or the more vulnerable the state, the more important for it the rules. Of course such rules have been regularly ignored or broken, especially by states that think they can get away with it. In a globalizing world in which for good or ill the interests of states are constantly rubbing up against each other, the need for rules with an accompanying apparatus of law has become increasingly important.

The United Nations is the most recent expression of efforts to establish mechanisms for maintaining international order. Big wars usually breed big attempts to create new mechanisms. Thus was born the League of Nations after the First World War, and the United Nations after the Second. Perhaps inevitably such mechanisms tend to be consecrations of the status quo. Such was the case in 1945 with the device of a Security Council whose Five Permanent Members were the victors in the war, and whose task was seen as guardianship of the world which had emerged from it.

In the half century or more which has followed, the United Nations has survived extraordinary changes in international relationships, and adapted itself pretty well in the process. It has survived, albeit at high cost, the East-West polarity created by the hostile coalitions led by the United States and the Soviet Union; it has survived the North-South polarity created by the break-up of the old colonial empires and a vast increase in its membership; it has survived the changes brought about by the end of the cold war; finally it has survived the current changes not only between nation states but within their frontiers, thereby found itself with a new role.

Perspective as British Permanent Representative

I was the witness of five main changes, or groups of changes during my time as British Permanent Representative between May 1987 and September 1990. First and most obvious were the changes in attitude caused by the ending of the cold war. The process was astonishingly rapid. Suddenly Permanent Representatives were able to talk to each other with a measure of common understanding and purpose.

This was particularly so within the Security Council and among the Five Permanent Members who found themselves at last able to fulfil most of the role given them under the Charter. New combinations developed among them: on some issues I found myself closer to our former adversaries than our friends. I was the informal chairman of the Five for almost two years. Some of our first essays in crisis management took place in my apartment looking over the East River.

I was also the witness of the general replacement of confrontation by co-operation among the vast majority of United Nations members. The arguments between rich and poor, between so-called developed and so-called developing countries, over such notions as new world economic orders or new world information orders had long proved sterile. Many of the underlying problems remained unresolved (and indeed have got worse since then). A new approach to them was - and is - clearly required.

At the same time I was the witness of a new willingness to contemplate the use of force in the name of the international community. There is no easy way to deal with the kingdoms of Caliban - the Hitlers, Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens - and each creates it own challenge to international order and ethics. A real test came in the reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the creation of the coalition under United Nations auspices to expel the Iraqis. This coalition was a classic example of the United Nations exerting the powers given it under the Charter. There was a similar test over Afghanistan.

I was also the witness of the development of new attitudes towards national sovereignty, a political concept first given legal force by the United Nations Charter. So far respect for sovereignty has been a foundation stone of the United Nations and its various institutions. Those who have the least sovereignty are always keenest to protect it. But over the years recognition of the constraints on it has become general, and erosion of the practice if not of the concept of sovereignty is widespread. Generally states are no longer watertight - if they ever were - from international law and practice, the behaviour of the global economy, transnational business and financial activity, and, with the development of information technology, communications on a global scale.

Last I was the witness of - and a participant in - the process of drawing up a new agenda of points of global concern. Most now realize the dangers our little animal species has created for the good health of the planet, in particular the vertiginous increase in our numbers, pollution of land, water and air, consumption of resources in industrial countries, pressure on resources elsewhere, and destruction of other forms of life. I was a member of the ginger group which began the preparations for the United Nations Conference at Rio in 1992 (the first meetings of the group were in the British Mission).

Other obvious points - then as now - were threats to human health, in particular AIDS, a vast increase in the numbers of refugees, and resurgence of ethnic and religious strife, the more assertive role of non-governmental organizations, and not least increasing polarization of the world's rich and the world's poor.

Fourteen years on we are in a new situation. Conventional hostilities may have ceased in Iraq and a sort of Iraqi government may be in partial charge. The fact that the initial invasion was successful did not make it right. From the beginning it was of dubious legality, and according to the UN Secretary-General, "was not in conformity with the Charter". It created damaging divisions in the international community. In short the war was bad for international law, bad for multilateralism, and at first bad for the United Nations.

This is not the occasion for looking into recent blunders. All I would say is that having defied the rules, the United States and its allies, including Britain, are now finding the guardian of the rules remarkably useful. Indeed it has become hard for them to envisage any way out of the mess other than by giving the United Nations what President Bush and Mr Blair have called "a vital role". The Security Council Resolution of 8 June was a big step in the right direction. But exactly what that role is to be in practical terms remains under discussion in New York as well as on the ground in Baghdad.

There are two other new points. First is the growing influence of what Joe Nye at Harvard has called soft power: in short the effects, positive or negative, of dominant culture, values, and standards. The United States lost a lot of soft power during the Vietnam war, but then mostly recovered it. It has now lost even more as a result of its conduct in Iraq. To some extent Britain has lost some too. Neither country can easily claim the moral high ground at the United Nations or elsewhere.

The second new point is the growing influence of public opinion expressed through the electronic media, whether television channels in the Middle East, instant communication throughout the world, and the forests of e-mail which now form public attitudes. That too affects what happens at the United Nations, and respect for international law and behaviour generally.

The United Nations institutions

Let us have a brief look at the UN system as a whole. The General Assembly is not now in session. In some sense it is the debating society of the world, where consensus, but also unease, can be expressed. We shall hear a lot more of the unease when the Assembly meets in September.

The economic and social side of the United Nations remains a Cinderella. Most of its original functions are discharged elsewhere in such bodies as the annual G8 summits, regional economic organizations, the OECD, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and some of the UN agencies. Protection of human rights is outside the formal sphere of UN responsibility. In this case there is a clash of cultures which remains unresolved.

Likewise work on disarmament within the United Nations has made little real progress. Arms control arrangements elsewhere have proved a more effective way forward. The scandal of the international arms trade continues unabated. Many of the poorer countries still have more soldiers than teachers. I sometimes wonder whether aid to such countries, whether bilateral or through UN agencies, should be linked to reductions in military expenditure.

On the more positive side such new institutions as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, created as a result of the Rio Conference, have potentialities. But if the bodies within the General Assembly family are to be effective and more efficient than in the past, then there must be a weeding out of the ones that no longer serve a useful purpose - and there are still many such - as well as the creation of new ones.

The Security Council is the most conspicuous institution of the United Nations system, and here the impact of change has been most evident. Working together, the Five Permanent Members were able to give leadership within the Council in bringing an eventual end to the war between Iran and Iraq, in promoting the independence of Namibia, in finding a settlement in Cambodia, and in creating the coalition which led to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait.

Obviously the Five cannot even pretend to rule the world. When they began to work together, the others felt a mixture of relief that they should be doing so with apprehension that they might be trying to form some five power directorate. But in the last few years neither the Five nor the Council as a whole have given consistent leadership, and have reverted to ambiguous resolutions and unwillingness to match means to ends. Moreover we have just seen two of them take unilateral action outside the Charter against the views of the other three.

For many the Security Council has become a prime target for reform. The composition is certainly anomalous. Why should the victors of a war which ended fifty-nine years ago enjoy a permanent place upon it and the right of veto? Yet we should be cautious in changing an institution which is discharging its original functions. The Permanent Members ensure continuity and stability. Their veto power has ensured that the Council remains a serious body and has not dwindled into yet another resolution-passing organization of real no consequence.

It is hard to think of new and satisfactory criteria to govern permanent membership. Geographical area? Size of population? Gross National Product? Possession of nuclear weapons? Readiness to act, if necessary with military force, on behalf of the international community? Any choice bristles with difficulties. Would Pakistan and Bangladesh welcome India as a Permanent Member? Would Argentina and Mexico welcome Brazil? If the European Union replaced Britain and France, would it ever take any decisions? In my view the time for change will come only as part of wider institutional reform.

Of the United Nations institutions, perhaps the International Court of Justice has so far changed least. It is a pity that more countries have not yet accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court, and made wider use of its facilities for resolving disputes between states. We also now have an International Criminal Court.

Finally there are the UN Agencies and Associated Bodies and Programmes (over forty in number) which have already changed substantially over the years. They bring together technical expertise in dealing with global problems, from health to meteorology, and the best of them are indispensable. Obviously some have worked much better than others. Together they constitute an important if still somewhat dispersed effort at global management of issues beyond the competence of nation states.

In my view the United Nations and its institutions suffer from four main handicaps. In spite of recent shortcomings, the UN system has almost excessive political credibility. Far more responsibility is loaded on it than it can possibly carry. Secondly the tasks it is given are often confused or imprecise, not least because member states themselves do not know how to cope with them. Thirdly it is not given the financial and other resources it needs to function effectively. Last it is not allowed to carry through necessary internal changes and reforms.

There is a curious and unbridged gap between the often repeated wish of governments, expressed in the Security Council, the General Assembly and elsewhere, for the United Nations to defend international order, fulfil its obligations under the Charter, and take on new responsibilities; and the means - political, financial and administrative - by which it could do so. Governments often blame the United Nations for failures. More legitimately the United Nations blames governments.


The fiftieth anniversary and the Millennium celebrations helped put the United Nations back on the international agenda. Obviously the first requirement is for member states to make the United Nations work as it could and should. This does not mean only paying subscriptions in full and on time. It means giving the United Nations moral and public support.

Governments are not the only players. As national sovereignty has eroded, so a broad array of non-governmental organizations, including minorities, have sought to make their voices heard in international as in national affairs. This was particularly evident at the Rio Conference, and to some extent at the Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development in 2002. But the United Nations still has to establish the means by which such organizations can express themselves from within the system rather than from outside it.

This raises a number of interesting questions. Among them are the accountability of NGOs, their value in expressing particular, inevitably partial points of view, and their relationship with governments. Another issue is whether the United Nations should provide some means to establish whether governments are governing with the consent of the governed; and if not, and in the event of flagrant abuse of human rights, whether the United Nations should be entitled to intervene in the affairs of an offending member state.

More generally I see a shift of loyalties and a switch of focus among people of many member states; upwards to international institutions to cope with the problems on the world agenda; downwards to local organizations and communities with identifiable local interests; and sideways in direct communication between individuals through television, email and other means, often focused on single issues, whether political, economic or environmental.

In some respects we seem to have reached a watershed. So far I have described the gradual, sometimes hesitant movement of the world community towards international codes of conduct and law, and willingness to cooperate in coping with global issues, whether of peace and war, or of sustainability in all its aspects. But now we have to face up to what, I suppose, was a natural consequence of the ending of the cold war: the emergence of a single superpower - the United States - which is increasingly setting its own agenda, laws, and rules of conduct.

US unilateralism is not new. But the tendency has become much starker in the Administration of President Bush Junior.

There are of course many inconsistencies in US policies. For example most Americans have an almost religious belief in free trade and market economics, but the Administration indulges in a wide range of subsidies and protectionist measures. It is not of course alone in doing so. The European Union has a good deal to answer for. The breakdown of the WTO talks at Cancun was primarily the responsibility of the industrial countries.

For the rest of the world the most conspicuous feature of US foreign policy is the exertion of military power. It seems strange that capitalist America should so endorse Mao Tse-tung's saying that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". Yet the United States spends more on defence and military technology than most other countries put together.

The world has known superpowers before, whether they be Persia, Greece, Rome, China, Spain, France, or Britain in their day, but the power of each has always been based to some extent on bluff, and they have pushed others into redressing the balance. Imperial overstretch was a regular feature, accompanied by increasing financial problems at home. I do not think that the Bush Administration, if it continues beyond November, will find things very different. Already it is up against the stops. It also faces, as I have said, a disastrous loss of soft power.

In my view the multilateral approach is the only approach, even for the United States. The United Nations must be more than an international body that names and shames. Wars must not be allowed to crowd out, even temporarily, the need to think about the big issues and work together in trying to resolve them. An enormous amount needs to be done and all states need to have their say in setting the agenda and judging results. If the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it.

But it is more than an institution; it is an ideal. It is soft power itself. We need to hold on to the uplifting idea of the United Nations as the magic world in which humankind is one. Here symbols are vital. Seen from space as a passenger in the solar system the earth is a tiny bright dot, or from closer to it the blue water world. No matter that the myth does not always correspond with the reality, nor that its principles and standards are not always observed. The truth behind any set of myths, principles and standards is acceptance of aspirations held in common. That is the goal of multilateralism and the ultimate strength of the United Nations.


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