9.5.1 Options for Maintaining International Security

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/951.htm)

The UN ( 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).  There have been some ideas for replacing it, or bypassing it, but they are unrealistic:

  • It has been suggested that a ‘unipolar’ world,[1] in which Americawould act as the world’s “sheriff”,[2] would be more stable – but the world won’t accept America as a monarch, as China’s defence spending clearly indicates (in March 2018 a BBC report was entitled China NPC: Government sets trillion yuan military budget).  And the invasion of Iraq (8.7.6) made America seem much less trustworthy as a sheriff, from the rest of the world’s perspective.
  • A multipolar world cannot be stable either. Carl Schmitt believed that a balance of power between strong nation-states, whereby every country has the right to make war,[3] would be sustainable – but the First World War demonstrated very effectively how rapidly a reliance on mutual fear can collapse.  In the 21st century the major powers will be sufficiently deterred by each other’s strength to avoid direct confrontations with each other, but it will not stop them from having armed conflict over other territories such as Taiwan.  Confrontations (4.5) would continue, in the absence of rules that they agree to comply with.
  • A ‘Premier league for democracy’, as proposed by Philip Bobbitt for example, might be more decisive than the UN but would have many of the same problems and would deepen existing divisions between the West and the rest of the world.[4]

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.

Today’s global challenges, taken together, are no less dangerous than those the world faced in the 1930s.  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 undoubtedly different from those faced then, but those institutions are a good starting point for avoiding another disaster.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] 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; this statement was leaked to the New York Times, which published it on 7 March 1992, and a declassified (and censored) version was subsequently made available by the government.  This material was available in April 2018 at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb245/index.htm.

[2] 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.”

This essay was published in Prospect magazine on 20 August 2002 and was still available in April 2018 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2002/08/thepowerdivide/.

[3] The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy provided a summary of Carl Schmitt’s philosophy, in which Section 5 described Schmitt’s concept of a balance of power.  The citation given was Vinx, Lars, “Carl Schmitt”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N.  Zalta (ed.).  It was available in April 2018 at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/schmitt/.

[4] In November 2008 Prospect magazine published an interchange of letters between Philip Bobbitt and David Hannay, under the title A premier league for democracy?, which summarised the arguments for and against that concept and which was available in April 2018 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2008/11/apremierleaguefordemocracy/.