Today's date:
Spring 2004

Rather the United Nations Than US Unilateralism

Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister of Russia as well as a former foreign minister and intelligence chief, sits on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s commission on the future of the United Nations. These excerpts are taken from A World Challenged (February 2004), a co-publication by the Brookings Institution and the Nixon Center.

Moscow—Can the world resist moving away from United Nations mechanisms and toward unilateral or coalition action by the primary players in world politics?

At the end of the 20th century, this extra-UN tendency led to the use of force outside UN auspices against Yugoslavia, a sovereign nation.

On March 20, 2003, the United States and Britain acted without a UN Security Council resolution, essentially ignoring the council’s opinion, and undertook an armed attack on Iraq. Is this our first glimpse of a system that will supplant the UN-based world order we know now? Will experience gained from taking individual action to resolve critical international issues be effectively applied in the era after Sept. 11? Or will the principles of so-called humanitarian intervention and an expansive interpretation of the demands of a war on international terrorism win out in the coming century?

The UN Charter limits the use of force to protect or restore international peace; it does not condone interference in the internal affairs of a state.

Article 2(7) demonstrates the incompatibility of these somewhat contradictory principles. The charter states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essential within the domestic jurisdiction of any state...but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.” This mechanism provides the primary world powers with rules of conduct that are largely responsible for international stability. These rules worked during the Cold War, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the US was able to occupy alone the position previously occupied by two superpowers. This was made patently obvious by the situation with Iraq during the late 1990s. Supported by Britain, the US moved outside the auspices of the UN to carry out air strikes against Iraq for its violations of the no-fly zone that the US had unilaterally imposed. Military strikes against Yugoslavia followed. At a high-level expert group symposium on international law (April 22, 2002, at Harvard University), former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser correctly observed, “At that moment, the only resolution to come from the UN was one calling for restraint on the part of the US. However, its goal was not the creation of a better international system, but rather the need for the UN to adopt a policy acceptable to the US.’’ At first, circumventing the UN was accompanied by attempts to extract last-minute tacit UN acknowledgment that the actions were legal.

This was especially true with Yugoslavia. In 1999, with NATO support and again unsanctioned by the UN, the US commenced bombing Yugoslavia. The US accused Belgrade of persecuting Kosovo Albanians and demanded the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from parts of their own territory, from Kosovo. (NATO recognized and continues to recognize the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.)

Having not long before branded the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) a terrorist organization, the US and several other NATO members came out in support of the KLA, which publicly declared its intent to break Kosovo away from Yugoslavia and to create a Greater Albania.

Justifying their action as countering massive repression of Albanians in Kosovo, the organizers of the NATO intervention created a situation in which direct pressure from Albanians drove Serbs out of Kosovo in huge numbers.

NATO’s intervention in Kosovo effectively supported those working to create an extremist Islamic state in the center of Europe. This tumor in Kosovo has already begun to metastasize to other countries, as evidenced by the swift rise of Albanian separatism in Macedonia. Nor did NATO intervention bring stability to Kosovo. Only the illusion of stability is to be seen, not true stability, and it will last only as long as UN troops are present. What happens after they go home?

This entire situation is the result of a subjective interpretation of events in Yugoslavia being given precedence over the UN principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Measures that served the misguided interests of one nation were given precedence over time-tested collective measures based on the UN Charter.

Apparently understanding the NATO intervention’s precariousness vis-a-vis international law, the Clinton administration tried to cast it as not in opposition to but very nearly in sync with the UN. Vice President Al Gore assured me—at the time I was prime minister—that the bombing of Yugoslavia did not violate the UN Charter and indeed reflected the general trend of Security Council discussion. How unrealistic this and other explanations were was clear from a statement made by UN Secretary-General Annan: “The intervention by a regional organization in Kosovo without UN mandate ended tragically and poses a challenge to the entire post-war system of international security.” Many shared Annan’s assessment. “US domination has led to a true crisis in the UN and within the world community. I refer to Kosovo,” said Fraser. He called the bombing of Yugoslavia unsanctioned by the UN Security Council “an unambiguous act of military aggression and a violation of international law.” As usual, the UN had to get involved with Yugoslavia. The NATO intervention was not fully effective, and dissent within NATO had grown. The UN Security Council passed a resolution sending an international contingent to Kosovo, and all parties acquiesced. At this stage, a solution was found by forgoing independent action by NATO and returning to UN practice. But does this mean the model for an about-face now exists or that we can be assured it will work this way under any circumstances?

HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION | The idea of humanitarian intervention was used to legitimize UN circumvention of the use of force against states later included by the US in the “axis of evil.” Humanitarian intervention allows a state or group of states to use armed force against regimes they feel are leading their countries to conditions of humanitarian disaster. This pertains to wide-scale human rights violations.

The world community is faced with wide-scale ethnic cleansing and mass murder. We face leaders whose policies result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of starving, persecuted refugees, in armed clashes with neighboring states, and in attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

It is true that in many such cases, human rights and the interests of peace and security cease to be purely a state’s internal affairs. Mass violations of human rights and security demand a reaction from the world community, including the possible use of force. But how and in what form? Based on international law or despite it?

The main issue here is whether force is used in accordance with the UN Charter, or whether its use circumvents the UN Security Council. A majority of states, including Russia, are in favor of preserving the UN mechanism and have spoken out clearly on this matter in recent years at every session of the UN General Assembly. A minority—primarily the US and a few NATO members—believe that humanitarian intervention requires a departure from UN procedure. They feel that the UN process, unwieldy because of the right to veto, only slows down and occasionally blocks the swift action that is sometimes needed.

There might be a real need for certain procedural modifications that would alter that primary international regulatory mechanism, the UN.

First, however, any such changes should not disempower the UN; it should not be transformed into some kind of consulting bureau. Second, modernization of the UN in line with today’s reality should not result from action by a single state or group of states, but through the collective efforts of UN members.

It is easy to see how so-called humanitarian intervention, used in place of the UN process, opens up broad opportunities to justify the use of force based on subjective evaluations and without any of the Security Council’s restraint. This could lead to unintended, disastrous results. When President Bush included Tehran in the “axis of evil” and threatened to use force against it, Iran threatened to destroy its oil fields and pipelines in the Persian Gulf. What would be the result for mankind if such an exchange of pleasantries were to be carried out not in words, but in deeds? What if this exchange were the common mode of behavior in international politics?

Many political observers believe that NATO’s armed action against Yugoslavia represented a new doctrine allowing the alliance to use force outside its borders even if none of its members has been attacked. This could be extrapolated onto the international situation that has evolved after Sept. 11.

Truly, not once has so-called humanitarian intervention carried out by a single state or group of states prevailed in the fight against international terrorism. The record shows that neither humanitarian intervention nor even the threat of its use yields positive results in this effort. Indeed, it often serves only to provoke further terrorism.

Neither does humanitarian intervention make any sense as a punitive operation against countries that may harbor terrorist organizations. If such were the case, the world community should give a green light to the bombing of London, where IRA extremists have built their nests, or Spain, from within which Basque separatists operate. It could be argued that strikes should not be carried out against countries that fight terrorist organizations within their own borders, as Britain and Spain obviously do.

Yet other cases are somewhat murkier. And who determines the degree to which a particular government is engaged in terrorist support if the UN is shut out of the decision-making? These are serious issues.

A permanent state of war against terrorism is supported by the new US military doctrine, which focuses on preemptive action against enemies the US freely makes up out of whole cloth. President Bush has made no secret of the fact that the US will initiate attacks on countries that it feels pose a threat to its security. This excessively broad understanding of US security jettisons the concepts of both international law and national sovereignty.

Should we accept that the US administration has found a realistic approach to establishing peace and maintaining security in the world? Hardly, if only for the reason that it eschews collective efforts and strengthens the cult of individual, solitary action by the US.

Will the US Seek Unilateral Militarization of Space?

Militarization of space is not a new issue. But the need for us to reject development in this area is now more acute than ever. If we let the opportunity to bring this about slip through our grasp, humankind will face a long-term, intractable strategic problem. Time is also of the essence because the US has announced its intention to develop a space-based antimissile defense system. Not only does this have nothing to do with efforts against terrorism, but it exacerbates these efforts by dividing nations and setting their interests at odds.

The US policy on a national missile defense system (NMD)—space based or otherwise—is motivated by the desire to maintain its dominant position.

On this matter, I am in complete agreement with Russian experts A.A. Kokoshin, V.A. Veselov and A.V. Liss, who write about this in great detail: “The motives for creating a national missile defense system are no longer just military in nature. These systems represent more than just a way out of nuclear stalemate or protection against some hypothetical missile attack by North Korea. What the Americans want more than anything else is something to make them stand out from the crowd in the 21st century’s new strategic landscape.” The authors see the US push to “maintain its exclusivity” through—among other things—technological breakthroughs in the realm of antimissile defense as a way to avoid dealing with the multipolar world that is taking shape.

Likewise, US efforts to curb the role of the UN in the world today and continual assertions of its right to unilateral use of force are obvious and are aimed at interfering with the processes moving us toward a multipolar world order. A more multipolar world is in the best interests of the entire world community—even, perhaps paradoxically, the US. A multipolar world makes it easier to respond to new security demands, especially international terrorism. The alternative—a unipolar, American-centric world—is already unacceptable to the majority of the world’s nations.

It is not unlikely that international confrontation and violence would spread in such a hypothetical, unipolar world. During the Cold War, the two superpowers caused no small amount of harm (the question of who was worse is not for this discussion) to other countries. During that time the balance between the US and USSR limited some of the negative effects their policies might have had. There would be nothing and no one to provide any balance in our hypothetical unipolar world. If this world becomes a reality, the inequality between nation states will express itself mainly in antagonistic ways. Imagine for a moment, in a world utterly dominated by the US, the possibility that China might try to wrench free to form another pole and center of world power.

This example is instructive in that it shows how there is no interim unipolar step on the path to a multipolar world order. Some international-affairs analysts share the opinion that although the current trend may be toward a US-centric world—which is happening regardless of what other countries want—in the future many countries may be vying to claim their own centers on the world stage. This scenario portends a future of our world that is rife with conflict and a return to brutal global confrontation. As American political analyst Samuel Huntington put it, “a unipolar system would have one superpower, no significant major powers and many minor powers.” According to him, the dominant power in such a system would be in a position to effectively resolve international problems as it wished, and no combination of other powers would be capable of acting against it. The world today has little use for a dominant power of this kind, though no globally dominant power has ever succeeded in bringing forth a unipolar world order.

There are two possible outcomes that would result from America’s unilateral efforts.

If the US were to use its enormous economic and technological resources to establish superiority in the militarization of space, other states would be powerless to present any competition. Then the US would have a monopoly not only in missile defense but also in a new strategic offensive space-to-Earth weapons system and a space-based anti-satellite system. This would fundamentally change the world’s present military and political balance. With no real opponents to the US in the world today, such a situation would only encourage those in the US who advocate more unilateral US action and perhaps the use of force not only against rogue states.

A second variation would be that other industrially and technologically advanced states would seek to block the US monopoly in space by developing and deploying their own space-based weapons, thereby causing the arms race to soar into space with unforeseeable consequences. How could this possibly help strengthen international security in the 21st century, or even ensure the security of just the US?

To bring antiterrorism efforts closer together, it is important that one power alone not build up new kinds of weaponry or monopolize the move into space while challenging others to compete with it in this as-yet-non-militarized sphere. What we need is the kind of well-thought-out and organic agreement embodied by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (which banned mass-destruction weapons in space). An agreement of this type could be joined by all countries with an interest in preserving scientific and commercial access to space. The number of countries directly or indirectly interested in this would grow, thus creating yet another basis on which the world community would come closer together.

For a New Terrorism Charter

By all accounts, it would seem the world is now quite close to seeing the use of some kind of nuclear device by terrorists. And there are hundreds of targets in every large country that possesses nuclear material: nuclear weapons stockpiles or transport caravans, nuclear power stations, nuclear fuel laboratories. The destruction of any of these would be a nuclear disaster of catastrophic proportions. At the beginning of 2002, 43 nations had nuclear power stations or nuclear reactors capable of producing nuclear material. More than 100 nations are stockpiling reserves of radioactive material. There is no convincing reason to believe that all of this nuclear material is well managed or protected.

In the war on international terrorism, it is extremely important to take decisive and direct action supporting the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Despite valuable progress—in particular the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by the majority of the world’s nations—the global community remains passive. It is far from clear what specific action can be taken to block nations, especially those engaged in regional conflicts, from joining the nuclear club. But the Sept. 11 tragedy demands that we give the issue our full attention.

I see this as one of the primary tasks for Russian diplomacy and Russian special services—especially since both undeclared and threshold nuclear nations lie at Russia’s door.

While Russian-American relations have entered a new phase of greater mutual trust, the US must cease unjustifiably accusing us of poorly managing our nuclear material and of working with other countries to build nuclear power plants that are supposedly used to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead of such rhetoric—which does little to stop the spread of nuclear weapons—we would like to see close cooperation on the antiterrorism objectives we share.

When I was head of the Russian government or foreign minister, each time I met with Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, they would invariably rake me over the coals for our nuclear power plant construction in Bushehr, Iran.

They would present me with the same list of Russian firms and companies that were supposedly supplying Iran with technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. We knew about their list because it had been given to us earlier by the Israeli government. We would explain that the construction in Bushehr was being carried out under the strict oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); that many of the companies on their list were no longer to be found at the addresses they showed; that we were delivering the same kind of light water reactors that the US was getting ready to give North Korea; that for Iran to have nuclear weapons was clearly not in Russia’s interest—first and foremost for purely geographical reasons.

Today, of course, demarches like these should be a thing of the past. Just like any other nation, Russia bears sole responsibility for any violations of international obligations currently in force. Our simple rule of thumb is that there should be no such violations.

The multitude of existing documents—UN Security Council resolutions and various conventions and declarations adopted by the UN General Assembly and its special bodies, by the Council of Europe, by the Organization of American States, by the League of Arab States, by many national parliaments and by a number of international conferences—falls short. We must develop a comprehensive document, a charter, for the war on terrorism. One prominent expert on international law, G.I. Morozov, correctly asserts that terrorism must not be viewed as a political crime. It is by its very nature a criminal act. Morozov insists that national laws on statutes of limitations or on the right of nonextradition do not apply to terrorist crimes. Any charter on terrorism must make issues like this clear.

That such a charter will sooner or later be signed seems a certainty. We do not need to specify exact contents—a task requiring international consultation and negotiation—to be able to anticipate several of the measures it would provide.

Nations that sign the charter would make a binding agreement not to permit within their borders any group or organization that advocates terrorism to achieve its goals, regardless of how noble or desirable those goals might seem. Any signatory to the charter would undertake strict financial oversight of terrorist groups, as well as measures to prohibit the transport of weapons, ammunition or troops by them. The charter could include any number of additional requirements or provisions for nations that agree to take an uncompromising line against terrorism.

I would like to emphasize that it is the responsibility of all states that sign the charter to turn over terrorists that seek a haven within their borders, at the request of any other signatory and with sufficient and appropriate documented evidence. Extradition of accused terrorists is essential in the war on terrorism: Criminals should not be able to count on shelter from any state. No matter where they are, they should find no quarter.

At present there are many states that do not share extradition agreements, a situation that often interferes with efforts to bring criminals to justice.

Changing extradition laws and legislation on a national level is a long and arduous process. These obstacles would melt away with a charter on terrorism.

The global community must agree to reevaluate many previously accepted beliefs about ensuring nations’ security and that of their allies. They must take part in establishing and maintaining regional and global stability.

Essential to this is finding reliable means of combating international terrorism in all its new forms.

The war on terrorism will not be effective unless all forces for good in the world join together in this common goal—and this includes the world’s one billion Muslims.