Disunited Nations


Of course there are those who see America not as a liberator but as a hegemon. An article titled “The Case Against Intervention in Kosovo,” which appeared in The Nation in 1999, argued implicitly that respect for state sovereignty should outstrip concerns about human rights. Comparing the Kosovars with Southern secessionists during the American Civil War, the authors asserted that “the province of Kosovo (the cradle of Serbia’s cultural and national identity) is an integral part of Serbia’s sovereign territory. … This conflict is, of course, a civil war, the root of which is the province’s ethnic Albanians’ armed struggle to break free of Serbia and establish an independent state. Thus, as in numerous ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the opposing sides’ objectives cannot be reconciled.” Perhaps not, but absent from this description of the Balkan wars was any mention of mass graves, rape camps, and ethnic cleansing.

America’s behavior on the international stage will doubtless continue to be shaped, as it has in the past, by a combination of principle and pragmatism—serious consideration of what we should do, tempered by careful deliberation on what we can do. The United Nations will doubtless continue to seem more useful when it advances the cause of human rights than when it doesn’t. As Grenada, Panama, and Haiti suggest, it is possible to flout international law without suffering any serious fallout. In each of those cases, America’s defying the UN led not to chaos but greater stability. It didn’t cause a crisis at the United Nations, and it did further the cause of human rights.


When America defies international law, does it not encourage every two-bit dictator to do the same thing? That fear prompted Kofi Annan to oppose NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999. He deplored ethnic cleansing but advised against foreign intervention because the Security Council hadn’t authorized it. If the members of NATO got militarily involved, he asked, “how could they tell other regions or other governments not to do the same thing without Council approval?” However, authoritarian regimes are far more often constrained by power than by considerations of right and wrong. During the Cold War it was not Western restraint that prevented the Soviets from invading Western Europe but the fear of nuclear annihilation. In the 1930s it was the passivity of Britain and France, not their aggressiveness, that enabled Germany to wage its campaign of aggression.

In the aftermath of NATO’s action against Serbia, it became more widely accepted that humanitarian intervention—that is, the violation of a country’s sovereignty in order to secure humanitarian objectives—may sometimes be a worthy choice. Annan himself, after initially opposing the NATO action, said, “There is an emerging international law that countries cannot hide behind sovereignty and abuse people without expecting the rest of the world to do something about it.”

Some, Annan among them, hope a stronger UN will play this role. Yet a stronger United Nations is still a United Nations. It must continue to be populated with, if not dominated by, governments that place little stock in human rights. But as Annan’s changing views suggest, sovereignty is not sacred. And when policy changes, international law tends to follow. The UN quickly recognized the new U.S.-backed governments in Grenada and Panama, and, since NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, what has been called an “evolving international law” has begun to accord less importance to sovereignty and more to the rights of the individual.

In Henry V, Shakespeare’s Harry tells his soon-to-be-queen, “Nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion; we are the makers of manners, Kate.…” America may need to exhibit less hubris than the victor of Agincourt, but its ability to reshape convention is no less great. And because with power comes responsibility, America may feel compelled to champion the twin causes of human rights and legitimate government ever more forcefully. History has shown that the United Nations often cannot do the job.