After the Cold War: Looking for Common Ground
June 2, 1993
With Responses From
After the Cold War: Looking for Common Ground
Is there a North/South divide in perspectives on post-Cold War security threats or on new ways of meeting those threats? The views of three Third World commentators — Eqbal Ahmad, Jagat Mehta, and Olara Otunnu — when contrasted with those by Alan Henrikson, myself, and other U.S. and European contributors in this and the previous Boston Review roundtable point to some notable differences.
How might an international consensus emerge on the legitimate objectives and conditions of UN uses of armed force?
Ahmad, Mehta, and Otunnu agree on post-Cold War security problems: They focus on internal conflicts within nations, particularly in the Third World; and Ahmad and Mehta raise the issue of nuclear proliferation. Concerning the environment for tackling these problems, they differ. Otunnu, noting the global spread of democratic values, is relatively optimistic. Mehta, underscoring the need for political reform and conflict resolution within nations, points to obstacles as well as new avenues to cooperation. Ahmad argues that the narrow interests of the great powers will probably continue to obstruct cooperation on security matters.
On the key features of a cooperative security system — the main point of engagement among past and current contributors — the views of Ahmad, Otunnu, and Mehta are remarkably close. All three argue that the international community should deal with security threats by acting through the United Nations and UN-related bodies. They view subnational and transnational actors and regional and ad hoc groupings of states as less likely than the UN to be effective at peacekeeping and peacemaking (Otunnu) or as useful participants in a reformed UN structure or process (Ahmad and Otunnu).
In considering how the UN might address security threats, all three stress the need for a consistent, principled, nonpartisan response, and they express concern about the potential for partisan action or inaction. Mehta and Ahmad view the West's complicit acceptance of Israel's nuclear capability as a case of partisan inaction on a major security issue. Similarly, Otunnu, Mehta, and Ahmad suggest that the great powers' refusal to intervene to end ethnic bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, following so closely on the heels of the UN-approved war to roll back Iraq's takeover of Kuwait, has qualities of partisan inaction. The inference is that aggression in the Gulf was repulsed not out of principle but to assure access to oil, whereas aggression in the former Yugoslavia goes unchecked because the West has no immediate strategic interest at stake. Mehta and Ahmad suggest that the great powers may be unwilling to incur any loss of life or financial burden as the price of consistent, non-self-interested application of international law and norms. Otunnu mentions the opposite concern: that the threshold for international military intervention in the internal affairs of nations may be too low, given the increasingly intrusive interventions over refugees in Iraq, hijackers in Libya, and tribal warfare in Somalia.
To avoid partisan Security Council decisions favoring action or inaction, Otunnu, Mehta, and Ahmad advocate steps to “democratize” the UN or its peacekeeping and peacemaking capability. Otunnu and Ahmad suggest enlarging the Security Council, giving its membership a more representative character and equalizing veto power by abolishing it (Ahmad) or by ensuring that every continent has a veto in some form (Otunnu), while Mehta proposes the creation of a standing UN armed force that is globally representative in composition. In addition, Ahmad suggests that the UN decisions be subject to review by the International Court of Justice and that the International Atomic Energy Agency be empowered to help prevent nuclear proliferation and reverse the arms race. Taking a gentler line, Otunnu and Mehta recommend that the great powers show self-restraint and commitment to the principles of international law.
On forms of UN-mandated action, Otunnu raises questions about non-military sanctions, whose efficacy in changing the policies of political elites is often in doubt. Economic sanctions, he observes, may do more harm to civilians than the violent conflicts they are meant to end, and they are unlikely to remain useful unless means are established to offset their effects in non-targeted countries.
In sum, surprisingly, Otunnu, Ahmad, and Mehta all support pro-active UN policies, led by the United States and other Western powers; and they stress the potential need for humanitarian military interventions under UN auspices to end bloodbaths in internal conflicts within nations. Less surprising, all three seek to strengthen checks and balances in the machinery of international peacekeeping and peacemaking, so as to reduce the partisan character of uses of force initiated or blocked by the great powers.
Their largely overlapping proposals agree on some points and differ on others when compared with the suggestions for a more cooperative approach to security put forward in this roundtable by Alan Henrikson and in the previous Boston Review roundtable by Stephen Van Evera, Hayward Alker, Jr., Jane Sharp, Jonathan Dean, Joanne Landy, Carl Kaysen, Steven Miller, and myself — writers based in Cambridge, New York, Washington, and London.
Only one commentator from the North (Landy) supports broadened membership for the UN Security Council, while one other (myself) proposes restrictions on the composition of UN armed forces as a check on partisan action. Virtually all the commentators from the North and the South agree, however, that the risk of inaction by the great powers in the face of threats like those in Bosnia and Somalia is a potentially prohibitive obstacle to the creation of an effective collective security system. The commentators also agree that active U.S. leadership is needed to establish consistent, nonpartisan standards for cooperative international action. Beyond this, they differ on the role of the great powers, sometimes sharply. Van Evera in the previous roundtable and Henrikson in this one argue that the best institutional framework for concerted international action on security matters may be the Group of Seven (G7) consultations among the heads of state of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Van Evera, stressing the need for carrots and sticks to support democratic reform in the former Soviet Union, and Henrikson, pointing to unwieldy UN deliberations and excessive U.S. influence in the Security Council, argue that the G7 nations are sufficiently few in number and similar in wealth, values, and political structure to share power; yet sufficiently powerful, when taken together, to have a decisive impact on world affairs economically and militarily.
In contrast, Mehta opposes “the arrogant assertion that the G7 must police the world, with the UN Security Council in tow”; and Ahmad and Otunnu oppose G7 leadership implicitly when they call for an enlarged Security Council.
This points to a paradox of collective security which time and talk may help resolve: Those who are most keen to see responsibility for peacekeeping and peacemaking shared democratically — Otunnu, Mehta, and Ahmad in this issue, myself and Landy in the previous one — tend to advocate principled, consistent, and, thus, possibly frequent use of armed force to end violence and support the rule of law. The two qualities — power sharing and the rule of law, supported by armed force if necessary — are logically, morally, and historically consistent. At present, however, they are politically incompatible because no consensus exists on the use of force under UN auspices.
In my previous article, I suggested that internal intervention within nations should be limited to one objective: ending genocide (or lesser but still massive slaughter). The use of force to protect human rights more broadly should be deferred, I argued, until people have developed trust in the peace-fostering character of UN military action. Concerning the constraints, scale, and command of UN interventions, I proposed that that such action be taken only as a last resort and under multilateral command, and that the action minimize death and destruction. These criteria involve judgment calls, and to some extent they conflict and may slow down or stretch out a UN response.
The dearth of comments by the other contributors on the principles that should guide and limit uses of force under UN auspices is indicative of the early stage of international debate on cooperative security, which is also reflected in the world's protracted inaction in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.
How might an international consensus emerge on the legitimate objectives and conditions of UN uses of armed force? It could, I believe, grow out of the overriding long-term interests of the international community in collective security.
My earlier piece argued that a new cooperative security system should involve not only reliance on multilateral peacekeeping and peacemaking, but also cutbacks to nonoffensive conventional defenses and a ban on production and trade of weapon systems essential for cross-border aggression. These changes, though economically disruptive in the short term, offer tremendous benefits over the longer run. With a strategy of nonoffensive defense and multilateral peacekeeping, the world could cut military spending from $850 billion per year to around $250 billion, while steadily strengthening support for the norm of nonviolent conflict resolution. By replacing reliance on nuclear weapons to deter conventional war, an effective collective security system would aid immeasurably in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Moreover, eventually, when it is clear to all that nuclear weapons play no role in the outbreak or outcome of conventional war, people may come to view nuclear arms like chemical and biological weapons — as instruments of mass destruction which can be abolished because their use is simply unthinkable.
These ambitious, long-term goals of peace and disarmament receive scant notice from Ahmad, Mehta, and Otunnu, in part, perhaps, because their main benefits would accrue initially to developed nations. To develop a more widely shared sense of the powerful values that should motivate efforts for cooperative security — saving massive resources in the North, ending large-scale warfare in the South, eliminating the threat of nuclear war, and strengthening commitment to human rights and nonviolence — we must consider this dialogue no more than the opening round in a wide-ranging, intensive, and extended debate.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.