Originally Published 2004-11-30 05:33:21 Published on Nov 30, 2004
Does the United Nations really matter when it comes to war and peace in the 21st century? To ask this question when long promised reform of the UN seems at hand ¿ the report of the High Level Panel appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan will be out on Thursday ¿ and India is stepping up its efforts to become a part of an expanded UN Security Council sounds heretical.
Does the UN matter?
Does the United Nations really matter when it comes to war and peace in the 21st century? To ask this question when long promised reform of the UN seems at hand - the report of the High Level Panel appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan will be out on Thursday - and India is stepping up its efforts to become a part of an expanded UN Security Council sounds heretical.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Any hard-nosed appreciation of the UN's role in war and peace, in particular its marginalisation during the recent American war on Iraq, however, indicates that it might be going the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations. No amount of tinkering with the UN's charter and structure, that Annan's panel is proposing, would help make it more credible and efficient.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The UN is an instrument of nation states and not of peoples of the world. Sentimentalists in India have often viewed the UN as some kind of a world parliament that deliberates and acts in a just manner on inter-state conflict. Decisions at the UNSC are products of crass political bargaining among the five permanent members. As a mere collection of nation states, the UN cannot transcend the underlying balance of power.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The UN was based on the idea of a "concert" among the three victorious powers of the Second World War - US, UK and Soviet Russia. The veto reflected the need for unanimity among the great powers on assessing the threat and defining the response to it. The in-your-face "balance of power" approach of the UN was based on hard lessons learnt during the inter-war period. It was rooted in the recognition that the League, with its utopian collective security framework, could not prevent the Second World War.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Collective security implies "all for one and one for all" - that a state committing aggression will be confronted by all others. However, during the inter-war period, which saw the dramatic rise of Hitler's Germany, each nation was for itself.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The great power concert envisaged under the UN, however, was paralysed by the new divisions among the Allies and an East-West Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, two competing ideas of the UN have emerged. Liberals in the US and Europe want to graft a "collective security framework" onto the UN. They would like to transform it into a supra-national organisation that is ready to deal with the new challenges to international peace and security, willing to promote rule of law, and prepared to violate the sovereignty of states in defence of collective interests.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> American realists and neo-conservatives insist the security system built around the UN is a relic of World War II. They say collective security is a mirage and the UN is incapable of dealing with new threats to international order like terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The realists and neo-cons are one in rejecting all attempts to transfer the ultimate national sovereign power on waging war to the UN bureaucracy. But they differ on one question.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The realists believe the UN could serve as a legitimising cover for American exercise of power and reduce the costs of unilateralism. The neo-cons argue the price of the UN rubber stamp - a consensus among major powers - is neither necessary nor worth it. Instead, they say, it is best to build new political coalitions of willing powers.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Underlying this debate has been the reality of the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands one nation, the United States of America. The impact of this power shift on the UN has been profound. The major powers have no option but to fall in line when the US wants something out of the UNSC. Even when they disagree, as they did last year on the question of waging war against Saddam Hussein, the US just ignored them and the UNSC. The UNSC can at best endorse what America wants to do; it cannot stop Washington. In practical terms then, the choice between "multilateralism" and "unilateralism" seems hard to fathom.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India's response over the last decade to the new debates on the UN has been two-fold. One is to endorse the slogan of multilateralism in general while opposing the creation of a supra-national UN that American and European liberals want. In short, India will not cede its sovereignty to the UN.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Much like the American neo-cons and long before they burst upon the scene, India was deeply skeptical of arguments to transfer decision-making on war and peace to an "unelected world government". Note, for example, current Indian opposition to UN involvement in the conflicts in Nepal or Sri Lanka.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India's other tack has been to support the strengthening of the UN by making it "more representative". The emphasis here is on India gaining a permanent seat at the UNSC. Given this obsession with a permanent seat in the UNSC, there has been little debate in India on the nature of new threats to International Affairs and the kind of new global mechanisms necessary to deal with them.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> A touch of realism on UN reform suggests that the prospect of India becoming a veto-wielding permanent member of the UNSC is remote.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Annan's panel is suggesting two different models of UNSC expansion. In neither case would new permanent members get veto power. Many countries are opposed to the creation of a new privileged class of states in the UN. They have enough clout to prevent or postpone structural reform of the UN.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> That India must take advantage of potential changes at the UN is self-evident. But beyond that short-term diplomatic objective, India's long-term goal must be something different - to become an indispensable element of a new power equilibrium in the world.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India's cynical realism on the UN and regional security in the Subcontinent is transformed into mushy idealism when global security issues are debated. As a weak power on the global stage in the last few decades, India has chosen to hide behind the slogan of multilateralism when big questions of war and peace beyond its own sphere of influence were involved. As a rising power now, India's interests are fundamentally different.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> If India wants substantive transformation of its global standing, it needs to shed many of its traditional fears about ad hoc alliances and its reluctance to deploy its troops in conflict zones of vital interest to it. If New Delhi wants symbolic change, it can continue to hanker after the elusive permanent seat at the UNSC. <br /> <br /> <br /> The author is Professor of South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Advisor, US Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. <br /> <br /> Courtesy: Indian Express, New Delhi, November 30, 2004. <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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