United Nations Association of the United States of America

The Use of Force in a Changing World: U.S. and European Perspectives

The eight-week long Security Council debate about Iraq was less about how to ensure Baghdad lives up to its UN obligations than about who should decided whether and when force can be used in this and other circumstances. France spoke for many in Europe and on the Council when it argued that the use of force must both be a very last resort and legitimized through explicit authorization by the UN Security Council. The United States, while willing for political reasons to give the United Nations a role, essentially argued that today?s threats make the early ? possibly even preemptive ? use of force necessary in circumstances like these, and refused to subordinate its ability to do so to an explicit future decision by the Council.

This, of course, is not a new debate. Four years ago, France and the United States also argued about the appropriate role of the UN Security Council in authorizing the use of force to prevent Serbia from committing gross violations of the human rights of its citizens in Kosovo. Then, expediency won out, with an agreement that force was necessary to prevent a great humanitarian emergency. Now, with passage of a unanimous resolution on Iraq, the questions of whether, when, and how force might be used have merely been deferred ? and to some extent left for Saddam Hussein to decide.

These differences on when force should be used and, especially, on who should decide are partly due to a disparity in power ? the United States can essentially do what it wants and therefore wants to retain its freedom of action, while others, lacking that capacity, have a natural interest in constraining the ability of the United States to go it alone. But the more important reason is that the existing framework for deciding questions about the use of force is less and less applicable to the vastly and rapidly changing circumstances of today?s world. The existing rules on the use of force, as codified in the Charter of the United Nations, are based on traditional notions of state sovereignty. The rules applied to an era in which states had an absolute monopoly on organized violence and in which force was of consequence only when it was used by one state against another. The right of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states was absolute. Accordingly, the use of force was justified only in cases of individual or collective self-defense or as a consequence of a decision by the UN Security Council when there was a clearly identified threat to international peace and security.

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