- Historic Sites
Why the UN was in trouble from the start
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
In the months before the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, two words kept cropping up in the vocabulary of its opponents: sovereignty and legitimacy. The war, they said, would threaten the sovereignty of an autonomous state (the Ba'ath party’s Iraq), and it would lack the legitimacy conferred by the backing of the United Nations. As one journalist put it, an invasion would be “the first test of the new doctrine … that the United States has the right to invade sovereign countries and overthrow their governments. … At stake is not just the prospect of a devastating war but the very legitimacy of an international system built over the past century that—despite its failings—has created at least some semblance of global order and stability.”
Such concerns were very widely felt. Robert Kuttner, the co-editor of The American Prospect, wondered if “other sovereign nations [are] prepared to accept the status of cattle.” Jacques Chirac, president of France, warned against “throwing off the legitimacy of the United Nations.” Even Colin Powell conceded that the UN would have to become involved in rebuilding Iraq for the sake of “international legitimacy.”
There is a problem with these concerns, a contradiction at the heart of the United Nations. It’s a paradox with roots that stretch back to Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 plan for a world without war and to Eleanor Roosevelt’s valiant struggle after World War II to place the rights of individuals above the rights of states. The problem is simply stated: Sovereignty and legitimacy are crucial to modern liberal internationalism, and so is the defense of human rights. Yet they can be completely at cross-purposes. Suppose a sovereign state willfully violates the human rights of its citizens and the legitimate international community fails to intervene? Which is more important, international law and the equality of states or the rights of individuals?
The principle of sovereign equality can be traced back across more than three centuries to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia. Besides bringing an end to the Thirty Years’ War, Westphalia formed the cornerstone of what became the modern system of states. In giving independence to the nations that had made up the Holy Roman Empire, Westphalia went a long way toward establishing a general belief that the internal affairs of a country—the religion it favors, the freedoms it allows—were the legitimate concern only of its own government. According to this modern notion of sovereignty, a prince was constrained in what he could do outside his nation but essentially enjoyed free rein within it.
This ideal of state sovereignty endured a grave threat during World War I, when the competing interests of Europe’s great powers erupted in a clash that introduced new levels of violence and destruction. In response to the carnage, President Woodrow Wilson sought to create a world order that would ensure a durable peace. In 1918 he surprised a joint session of Congress with a number of bold proposals known as the Fourteen Points. The most important was a call for a “general association of nations” that would safeguard “the independence and territorial integrity [of] great and small states alike.” The result was the League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations. Senate resistance prevented America from joining the League, but Wilson’s faith in international cooperation struck a chord among many at the time, and it continues to resonate today. As the historian Alan Brinkley explains, it was a vision “strongly rooted in the ideas of progressivism, that the world was as capable of just and efficient government as were individual nations—that once the international community accepted certain basic principles of conduct, and once it constructed modern institutions to implement them, the human race could live in peace.”
Also central to Wilson’s public philosophy was an appreciation of democracy and human rights. “No peace can last, or ought to last,” he declared, “which does not recognize the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The following year the President called for the “destruction” of “arbitrary power anywhere in the world.” He apparently didn’t notice any contradiction between the independence “of great and small states alike” and opposition to “arbitrary power anywhere.”
Thirty years later the world had occasion to revisit Wilson’s principles. If World War I challenged international leaders to uphold the integrity of sovereign states, World War II introduced a new imperative, safeguarding the rights of human beings. The German and Japanese race-cleansing campaigns were not entirely unprecedented (the Armenian genocide of World War I stands out as an earlier example), but they were certainly unprecedented in their awful magnitude.
In the spring of 1945 representatives of 50 nations gathered in San Francisco to finalize a charter for the United Nations. Like the League of Nations, the UN was created as a guard against regional conflict. Rooted in Wilson’s conviction that small wars were bound to ignite global ones, the UN created a more sophisticated set of mechanisms to enforce the integrity of borders and state sovereignly. But the new organization went a step farther. It realized it must also protect individuals from their own leaders.