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.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.