Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Summer 2009

Abstract

This essay considers the respective roles of the United Nations and the United States in a world of rising multipolarity and rising new (or old) Great Powers. It asks why UN collective security as a concept persists, despite the well-known failures, both practical and theoretical, and why it remains anchored to the UN Security Council. The persistence is owed, according to the essay, to the fact of a parallel US security guarantee that offers much of the world (in descending degrees starting with NATO and close US allies such as Japan, but even extending to non-allies and even enemies who benefit from a loose US hegemony in the global commons such as freedom of the seas (leaving aside pirates)) important security benefits not otherwise easily obtained.

Much of the world can afford to pay lip service to UN collective security as an ideal, and to nourish it as a Platonic form, precisely because they do not have to depend upon it in fact. Not all the world falls within even the broadest conception of the US security umbrella, however, and these places include such locales as Darfur and other conflict zones in Africa. In those places, according to the paper, the US should engage with UN collective security to offer what the US will not, or cannot, offer directly.

The paper also argues that the Security Council should be understood, in a world of rising multipolarity especially, not as the "management committee of our fledgling collective security system," as Kofi Annan put it, or even as a concert of the Great Powers, but as simply the security talking shop of the Great Powers. Sometimes the Security Council can act as a collective security device, and sometimes as a concert of the Great Powers (e.g., the first Gulf War), but the condition of multipolarity argues that Great Powers are competitive and that the Security Council will find its limits, but also its role, mostly as the place for debate and argument, diplomacy successful or not - but not management of global security.

The essay also argues that those who want to see an end to loose US hegemony in favor of the supposed freedoms and sovereign equality of a multipolar world should think carefully about what they wish for. The dreams of global governance by international institutions turn out to have their greatest possibilities precisely in a world that, to a large extent, relies upon a parallel hegemon rather than collective institutions for its underlying order. In a multipolar, more competitive world, the winner is unlikely to be liberal internationalist global governance or UN Platonism or collective security, but instead the narrow, often directly commercial, interests of rising new powers such as China. The paper closes with policy advice to the United States on what it means and how it should - and should not - engage with the UN on security and the Security Council.

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