Now that we’re clearly out of the Cold War, what’s next?
The Cold War was the consequence of a bipolar world order with two competing superpowers, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The United States claimed to represent liberal democracy, the notion that rights begin with the individual, and the USSR a more collective, class-based understanding of rights.
It is clear that neither accurately represented their supposed model of rights. The United States frequently supported corrupt and authoritarian regimes or regime change simply on the grounds that they were “anti-communist.” The USSR itself became increasingly corrupt and was willing to support corrupt regimes even if they were more often on the side of liberation struggles than the US.
With the USSR out of the picture and Russia’s failed attempt to reassert itself as the new USSR or Russian imperial state in the Ukraine, where does that lead us?
The obvious next step is a new bipolar Cold War, with China and the United States as poles. But is that inevitable? Isn’t there a better way?
The Charter of the United Nations, a document of great promise, is worth reviewing. Here is the original wording, proposed by South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts.
We, the United Nations, meet in a Conference to seek a new way of life for the nations, and to avoid a repeat of the fratricidal struggle that now twice in our generation has caused untold pain and loss to humanity, and to establish an international organization. To that end:
We hereby declare, in this Charter of the United Nations, our faith and common goals, and the principles on which we seek to found an Organization for the peace, progress and welfare of mankind.
Chapter I. The common faith.
1. We declare our faith in basic human rights, in the sacredness, essential value and integrity of the human personality, and we affirm our determination to establish and maintain social and legal sanctions to safeguard them.
2. We believe in the practice of tolerance, in the equal rights of individuals and of individual nations, large and small, as well as in their inherent right to govern themselves without outside interference, in accordance with their own customs and Lifestyle.
3. We believe in expanding freedom and promoting social progress, and raising the standard of living, so that there may be freedom of thought, expression and religion, as well as freedom from want and fear for all.
4. We believe in nations living in peace and interacting peacefully with each other as good neighbors, and in renouncing war as an instrument of national policy.
The final version went through many revisions but maintains the essence of an idealistic call for principles and respect for human rights.
“But wait a minute,” you might as well say. “Smuts was a white supremacist. So was Churchill, still seen by many as the heroic leader of World War II, and he too was a staunch imperialist.”
You can see the original preamble as a document of both great hope and great hypocrisy.
However, such a mixture of hope and hypocrisy is not the end; hope is always there as a counter to future hypocrisy. Consider the wording of the United States Declaration of Independence:
… We hold that these truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endowed them with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Putting aside the 18th century lapse of referring to all genders as men, the hypocrisy that “all men are created equal” written by a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, did not prevent these words from being interpreted in later ways. a more inclusive way.
So if we build on the hope with which the UN was created and step out of the shadow of the hypocrisy of its creators, where does that take us?
The UN Charter in its current form expands on Smuts’s words and calls for the equal treatment of all nations, as well as the prevention and end of armed conflict and the promotion of human rights.
Because it does not work?
Just as Jefferson is no longer around to keep slaves, Smuts, Churchill and others of their day are no longer with us to interpret human rights in an exclusive way, and surely the UN’s original goal of preventing conflict is as relevant now as it was in the past. 1945.
The biggest flaw in the way the UN is structured is that the Security Council is the only body that can make binding decisions and the permanent members, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, have power. of veto. This means that if any of them operate in violation of the Charter, nothing can be done through the UN, resulting in measures outside the UN, such as sanctions imposed by one of the strongest members.
The Security Council was structured that way to take into account the reality of the post-World War II landscape, where the allies who defeated Hitler were on the same side but mistrusted each other, particularly the USSR and the Western powers. China changed status in 1971 when the UN recognized the mainland’s communist government despite the de facto defeat of its opposition in 1949. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia took over from the USSR.
But it cannot be said that this arrangement is compatible with the equality of treatment of all nations. Why shouldn’t India, for example, which will become the world’s most populous country next year, be a permanent member? Why is no country in Africa or South America a permanent member? Why does it make sense that a single permanent member could prevent effective action against a violation of the Charter? Examples include the US war in Iraq and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Another example is the destruction of the environment by large corporations that sometimes wield more economic power than a small or medium government.
One approach would be to submit any dispute between states to the International Court of Justice for a binding resolution. But that approach would be too slow when a conflict was about to break out.
Another approach would be to empower the UN peacekeeping force to deploy whenever a conflict is about to break out. This would require considerable expansion of its capacity and controls over how it was implemented. But wouldn’t this be better than a superpower appointing itself the world’s police officer?
The veto power of any member should also be reconsidered. When consensus is not possible, that should not freeze the possibility of intervention. Since any decision would be open to judicial ratification, this would alleviate concerns about arbitrary interventions contrary to the Charter.
The problems I raise are difficult to solve. I doubt any quick fix will work. But at least incremental steps in that direction would be a start, and I don’t see evidence of that.
Two countries have a strong interest in driving a shift in this direction, for different reasons: the US and Russia.
United States because its population suffers from war fatigue. Although former President Donald Trump did it clumsily, he captured this mood, and President Joe Biden has continued to reduce US military involvement. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a serious mistake, but US assistance to Ukraine has been carefully calculated to prevent US involvement in the conflict.
Russia also has an interest in reforming multilateralism because it lacks both hard and soft power to achieve its goals. Even if the allegations that he manipulated UK politics to favor Brexit and US politics to favor Trump are true, both initiatives have passed their peak.
A growing majority in UK polls admit that Brexit was a mistake and that the Tories are in disarray. The 2022 midterm elections show that Trump is done. Ukraine has shown that the Russian military is not capable of conducting a sustained campaign against a well-trained and well-equipped motivated opposition.
If neither the US nor Russia have the appetite or the ability to be the world’s police officer, that only leaves China with the potential to take on that role. But does the Chinese government want that? More importantly, should it?
The best option is to fix the UN. My proposal has three components: an independent judicial body that can order interventions, a more inclusive decision-making process than the current Security Council, and a stronger peacekeeping force.
This is a very rough idea, but you have to start somewhere.
Philip Machanick is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Rhodes University.