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October 09, 2006


Patrick S. O'Donnell

I thought much the same thing about sanctions when reading Le Mon's analysis today. You should paste your post at Opinio Juris in the comments! I doubt China will allow economic sanctions, and I think the incoming Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, will frown on sanctions as well. And, in any case, it seems it is not even well-established that this was indeed a full-fledged nuclear test, given early estimates of the size of the explosion.

I don't think, however, we should go so far as to speak of the UN's obsolescence, although we might continue to address the subject of urgent and necessary reforms....

Christopher Cassidy

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Patrick, especially the great point regarding the role to be played by Secretary General (to be) Ban, and the remaining questions as to the success of the nuclear test. On your suggestion, I have placed a comment briefly presenting some of my above points on Mr. Le Mon's post at Opinio Juris.

Regarding the United Nations, I am not sure the organization was performing a positive role even before the recent nuclear test. As we all know, the Security Council is the only UN body that makes binding decisions. And it is composed of 5 permanent members whose votes and vetos are relevant (e.g. the US, China, France, Russia, and Great Britain.) Due to this structure, the UN is basically a tool of the victors of WWII to avoid another world war. As with any organization set up by victors of recent violence, it does their will with little-to-no regard for the interests of non-victors. What good is there in such tyranny, especially with Hirohito, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco safely put to rest?

Empirically, there is also an argument that the UN serves, at best, a marginally positive function. With apologies to Janet Jackson, what has the UN done for us lately? It stood up to ill-premised invasion and occupation of Iraq, but to what positive effect? The US was still free to invade that sovereign nation against every applicable principle of international law. The UN did nothing (effective) to prevent a nuclear Korean peninsula, nor does it appear to be playing any positive role in keeping Iran from the ultimate deterrent. In short, the UN has failed to prevent or lessen a vast number of disasters in recent decades, including those involving (in no particular order) Darfur, Rwanda, global warming, Lebanon, Palestine, the decade of war between Iran and Iraq, the US-Vietnam War, the genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, civil war in Sri Lanka, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, etc. Looming problems that the UN seems ill-equipped to deal with include a potential US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the rift between China and Taiwan, and the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amongst others.

It may be a stretch, (or an illustration of my historical ignorance,) but I might venture to say that the last/only good thing accomplished by the UN was the repulsion of the Communists from Seoul. Unfortunately, though, I have no faith that the UN will once again deliver the Korean peninsula from trouble. Of course, I hope I am wrong.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


While I'm tempted to engage in the larger debate that is implicit here, permit me (owing to time constraints) simply to say that the locus of blame, in the end, rests squarely with this or that superpower or this or that group of powerful states, that have used--often but not exclusively through the Security Council--the UN to do its bidding. If I'm not mistaken, I think this is one argument to be found in Paul Kennedy's recent book, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006). I could narrate a list of things the UN has accomplished or done for the better, but I would agree that its apparent failures and shortcomings are more dramatic and discouraging. A simple thought experiment should suffice: Imagine the world without the UN having ever existed: I shudder to think what such a world would look like. Indeed, one of the reasons we are able to criticize its shortcomings, is because the UN has served to raise our expectations of what we might expect from organizational bodies (NGOs, for instance) that endeavor to transcend the purely sovereign interests of states in global affairs. The UN was created by States, and they are often culpable, alone or in collusion, for whatever failures it is blamed for (it serves to deflect the attention from the parties responsible in the first instance).

Incidentally (or not), I'm not sure Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons; in fact, I'm inclined to believe their stated intentions to the contrary. There are many reasons for saying this, and some of them depend on a deep understanding of Iranian history and politics, something most observers and pundits conspicuously lack in appalling degree.

And I'll not address the specifics of the other cases you cite, save for one more, the problem of global warming. Here the UN and its agencies have been rather exemplary, it's been the US that has sought to undermine its efforts to address this problem, beginning with the Kyoto Protocol....

Christopher Cassidy


I entirely agree that the dramatic shortcomings of the UN have been at the hands of self-interested superpowers. And it is from this conclusion that I observe the UN's inherent structural flaws, permitting rational, self-interested superpowers to wield the UN as a tool of their own arsenal. These structural flaws are, I believe, detrimental to the functioning of the UN, and beyond the realm of remedy.


So wait, does this mean we're going to institute sanctions against Israel, India, and Pakistan as well (the other non-NPT states which currently possess nuclear arsenals).

Kendra McGee


I found your post and the ensuing debate quite interesting. I think both you and Patrick make some excellent points. While I agree that the U.N. is an entity set up by the victors of one war to avoid another and that this objective serves with little-or-no regard to the interests of the non-victors, I must say that I too shudder at the thought of a world without the U.N. (despite my sometimes pessimistic attitude about its operations and activities).

I thought you might find this interesting. Richard Edis points out, the non-victors of the time knew exactly what they were getting into, veto and all. Calls for reform of the veto and other facets of the U.N. system are nothing knew and were well contemplated by all parties at the time of the organization's founding. Edis states:

In establishing a system of international peace and security it was realistic of the founding fathers to recognize that great powers will not be prepared to participate in an organization in which they have to shoulder much of the burden without safeguards for their essential interests. Without the veto, who can doubt that the Soviet Union and the United States would not have been tempted to walk out of the U.N. as great powers had done from the League? At the same time, there was no question of giving such states unbridled power."

Edis implies that this was a pragmatic approach for a wider (and more idealistic) vision of international cooperation. While the world is a much different place now as it was at the time of the founding, I still think it valuable to use the U.N. mechanisms before resorting to unilateral methods to solve international disputes. Though not always the most effective (N. Korea case in point), I think the U.N. has some inherent deterrent effect on nations inclined to use force as a first resort. Without the imbalance between the veto powers and the other states, I think Edis is right, the veto powers are/were unlikley to at least maintain the facade of cooperation over the past 50 years.

Just a thought...

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