In accepting the Nobel Prize recently, Jimmy Carter lectured on peace and the immorality of war. Neither coyly nor subtly, the former president ripped President George Bush's handling of the war on terror in general, and the Iraqi crisis in particular. For Carter, the Bush administration is too warlike and too unilateral in its approach. Carter's hope for a better world? Collective security through the agency of the United Nations.
The premise of collective security is captured in the Three Musketeers' slogan, "one for all and all for one." Under U.N.-sponsored collective security, every nation is automatically obliged to help restore breaches of the peace. Each nation commits to respond to future threats unequivocally. Unlike alliances, however, where threats come from without, threats to the peace of the collective comes from within, that is to say, from members of the collective.
But collective security has never worked in history, neither under the League of Nations, nor since the creation of the United Nations. It has not worked, nor can it work, because it ignores fundamental political realities.
The first reality is that nations pursue their own interests. During the peak of the Bosnia crisis, Germany supported Croatia, Russia supported Serbia, and the Muslim world supported Bosnia proper. Most members of the U.N. stayed out of the conflict because it didn't concern them, despite the theory of collective responsibility. And because there has never been any universal agreement on the culpability and punishment of those who breach the peace, there never has been any uniform response. That is the second political reality. The third is a bit more complicated.
Implied in the theory of collective security is the notion of unanimity or consensus. That is, because in theory every member of the collective pre-commits to maintaining peace, the organization should act in concert. However, because of conflicting national interests and disagreements about aggression, a strong dose of unilateral leadership is required to get the collective to act. This unilateralism necessary to kick start collective action is the bane of the collectivists. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
Forging the response to the Bosnia conflict took strong leadership from the United States. Indeed, until the U.S. intervened in the conflict, no solution was possible since all sides were evenly balanced. During the Gulf War, despite the contributions of many nations, the U.S. role — militarily, diplomatically, and politically — was decisive in every respect. So too in the Korean War.
Thus, another problem with collective security emerges. Because it differs from a coalition or an alliance, which is established against a specific enemy, collective security has no known enemy until a member of the community acts aggressively. Thus, the initiative lies with the aggressor. While the collective deliberates on the appropriate response, the aggressor has time to consolidate his gains. Importantly, the longer the collective takes to respond to the aggression, the more belligerent the response looks. Thus, the Bush administration was charged with bellicosity in building up to Desert Storm during the fall of 1990 and early 1991, though Iraq had already conquered Kuwait in August 1990.
All of these problems, and more, are evident in the potential war with Iraq over its development of weapons of mass destruction. While Iraq violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and at least seventeen different UN Security Council resolutions, it is the Bush administration that is being accused of a war-mongering unilateralism for threatening to hold the regime of Saddam Hussein accountable.
Domestic and foreign critics of Bush also argue that the U.S. must wait for its "allies" and/or the UN to join the effort against Iraq. But Britain already supports the United States. Of the remaining major allies, France and Russia are opposed and have a seat on the UN Security Council and so can veto any resolution to go to war.
But the Security Council is no repository of international wisdom and disinterested justice. Both France and Russia have substantial outstanding commercial contracts with, and debts from, Iraq. Neither has any vested interest in regime change, but rather the status quo. And both governments have done well in getting their message out to their publics. In a major poll by the Pew Foundation, substantial majorities in these two countries were opposed to the use of force against Iraq even though the same majorities saw Iraq as a major threat to stability in the Middle East.
U.S. leadership, again, will be decisive in disarming Iraq. It would be indelicate to point out the irony that to get the peace Mr. Carter so desperately wants, it will fall to the administration he castigates so strongly to get it done.