9.5.1 Options for Maintaining International Security
There are no better options for maintaining international security than reviving the authority of the UN, to enforce stability.
The UN (6.6.6) was founded explicitly to reduce countries’ dependence on self-protection, but in its current mode of operation it isn’t able to guarantee peace (7.4.4). Alternative geopolitical options are compared below, concluding with the observation that the UN is a good basis for the design of a more robust system for maintaining international security:
A unipolar world, led by America
That has been the de facto system since the end of the Cold War, but it has become unstable. The American Defense Planning Guidance of 1991-92 declared that America should use its power to “Prevent the Reemergence of a New Rival”, either on former Soviet territory or elsewhere, to maintain its hegemony. And Robert Kagan vividly described his vision of America’s role as the world’s sheriff, in his essay The power divide:
“The US does act as a sheriff, perhaps self-appointed but widely welcomed nevertheless, trying to enforce some peace and justice in what Americans see as a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred, often through the muzzle of a gun.”
A unipolar world had appeared to be possible after the end of the Cold War, but it is clearly not accepted:
● A BBC report, China NPC: Government sets trillion yuan military budget, drew attention to China’s increasing military capability.
● An Economist article, How America wasted its unipolar moment, described US policy since 9/11 as aimless and wandering: “Having become the world’s only superpower, America had very little idea how to use that power—if, indeed, it should use it that much at all.”
● The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (188.8.131.52) made America seem much less trustworthy as a sheriff, from the rest of the world’s perspective. “The war on terror improved neither the nation’s standing nor the nation itself”.
A multipolar world, dominated by alliances of countries
As described previously (7.2.7), countries can form alliances for self-protection in the absence of a rules-based world order. That has been happening in the current security crisis, but it isn’t a formula for stability. The First World War demonstrated very effectively how rapidly a reliance on mutual fear can collapse:
“A number of alliances involving European powers, the Ottoman Empire, Russia and other parties had existed for years, but political instability in the Balkans (particularly Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina) threatened to destroy these agreements.
.. Convinced that Austria-Hungary was readying for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilize and appealed to Russia for assistance. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers quickly collapsed.”
Two areas of instability in 2024 might escalate: Ukraine and Israel. There are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings leading to escalation and conflagration. And the possibility of another world war is already being discussed: World War Three is approaching fast, and too few are willing to admit why: “The great danger is that failing autocracies will reason that they have less to lose by starting a conflict”. The article cited Russia and Iran as examples.
The major powers might be sufficiently deterred by each other’s strength to avoid direct confrontations with each other in the 21st century, but that will not stop them from having armed conflict over other territories such as Taiwan. Confrontations (7.4.5) would continue, in the absence of rules that the opponents agree to comply with.
An alliance of democracies
A ‘Premier league for democracy’, as proposed by Philip Bobbitt in Prospect Magazine in 2008, might be more decisive than the UN but it would still have disagreements among its members. Nonetheless, it was reported in January 2021 that UK plans early G7 virtual meeting and presses ahead with switch to D10: “South Korea, India and Australia to be invited to join face-to-face summit in June”. The proposal “met resistance from some European states concerned it will be perceived as an anti-China alliance and a means of diluting the power of EU countries”. It is not a viable global solution: it would be one of the power blocs in a multipolar world.
Cold War 2
Kurt Engelen has suggested that “it seems that a Cold War 2.0 might indeed be our best available option”. He describes his analysis as being based on “neorealism”, which is another way of saying that we have to deal with the world as it is. He paints a picture of continued confrontation, which would probably continue the current pattern of numerous proxy wars.
“Instead of investing time and efforts in trying to integrate Russia into the group of Western democracies, which is doomed to fail, efforts should be concentrated on realising a pacific coexistence. To that end, one should understand that the best variant of peace that we can hope for will inevitably be based on a balance of power at a global, but also at a regional level.
Such a balance of power can only be obtained through tangible assets that are recognised by the Russian side as an actual deterrence rather than some subliminal political message that only resonates in Western minds. It will therefore be necessary to deploy and sustain a credible forward military presence in those countries that have a common border with Russia or its allies.”
This option is just another version of a multipolar world.
A reformed UN is the best option
It would be better to fix the UN’s problems than to ignore it or replace it, so that it can provide trustworthy governance and gain more legitimacy. As Suzanne Nossel wrote recently, The World Still Needs the UN: “Building Global Governance From Scratch Is a Fool’s Errand”. Today’s global challenges, taken together, are no less dangerous than those the world faced in the 1930’s. The historical context is illuminating, as described in an article The End of the Wilsonian Era:
“More than a century before Wilson proposed the League of Nations, Tsar Alexander I of Russia had alarmed his fellow rulers at the Congress of Vienna by articulating a similar vision: an international system that would rest on a moral consensus upheld by a concert of powers that would operate from a shared set of ideas about legitimate sovereignty.
…American leaders during and after World War II laid the foundations of what they hoped would be a Wilsonian world order, in which international relations would be guided by the principles put forward in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conducted according to rules established by institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the World Trade Organization.”
The Second World War caused politicians to think clearly about what would be needed to avoid another such war, but the institutions they founded have never fully matured – and are in danger of becoming irrelevant, as they are ignored by major powers. The world’s current challenges are different from those faced then, but those institutions are a good starting point for avoiding another disaster – as described next (9.5.2).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/951a.htm.