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In finally taking the vexed issue of war with Iraq to the United Nations, U.S. President George W. Bush has presented the organization with a double-edged test of credibility. Will it lift its performance and remain relevant to U.S. foreign policy on Washington’s terms, or in doing so will it be seen as bending to U.S. will without demanding American compliance with global norms from arms control to environmental regimes and international criminal justice?

The U.N. as the moral legitimacy and political credibility to mediate, moderate and reconcile the competing pulls and tensions that still plague international relations. But it lacks the military muscle to enforce its edicts.

The United States, which is both today’s supreme power and the historic nation of laws, is the world’s de facto sheriff, enforcing international norms and law, often with the aid of deputy sheriffs, in various parts of the world. U.S. rejections of specific global regimes undermine respect for a world order based on collective norms and international law: Even the sheriff must respect law and be seen to be impartial in dispensing frontier justice.

The U.N. is the principal institution for building, consolidating and using the authority of the international community. It is the main framework within which nations negotiate agreements on the rules of behavior and the legal norms of proper conduct in order to preserve the society of states. Thus simultaneously the U.N. is a forum for mediating power relationships, accomplishing political change that is just and desirable, promulgating new norms and conferring the stamp of collective legitimacy.

These tasks acquired particular urgency in the revolutionary conditions after World War II: The new power relationships were untested; revulsion against old-style management of power relationships remained strong even while the sobering experience of the interwar years had tempered the idealism associated with the League of Nations experiment; colonialism was not just physically on the retreat but also politically on the defensive against passionate denunciations of its illegitimacy; the incipient and inchoate sense of one interdependent community was heightened under the impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The U.N. seeks to replace the balance of power with a community of power. It represents the dream of a world ruled by reason, where force is put to the service of law. It is the means of outlawing war and mobilizing the collective will of the world community to deter, apprehend and punish international lawbreakers.

The U.N. is also the symbol of what member states must not do. In the field of state-citizen relations, the totality of U.N. Charter clauses and instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights restrict the authority of states to cause harm to their own people within territorial borders. In the sphere of military action across territorial borders, U.N. membership imposes the obligation on the major powers to abjure unilateral intervention in favor of collectively authorized international intervention.

Article 24 of the U.N. Charter confers upon the Security Council the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as the duty to fulfill this responsibility. As its authorization is in every instance preferable to all other alternatives, the Security Council should always be the first port of call on any matter relating to the international use of force.

But the burden of responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, from having the power to make the most difference, falls today on the U.S. The conceptual connecting rod that links U.S. power to U.N. authority is the legitimacy of enforcement action sanctified by the Security Council.

The legitimacy of the Security Council has been subject to a fourfold erosion: It has been perceived as being increasingly ineffective in results, unrepresentative in composition, undemocratic in operation and unaccountable either to the General Assembly or an independent judiciary.

The industrialized Western countries often chafe at the ineffectual performance legitimacy of the Council, and their desire to resist the Council’s role as the sole validator of the international use of force is the product of this dissatisfaction at its perceived sorry record. Hence Bush’s challenge to the U.N.: Enforce your demands on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, or I will do it for you (and, implicitly, rub your nose in the dirt of your impotence).

Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned in the past that “if the collective conscience of humanity cannot find in the U.N. its greatest tribune, there is a grave danger that it will look elsewhere for peace and for justice.” If the Council members — and the five permanent members in particular — fail to make it relevant to the critical issues of the day, then they can only expect it to diminish in significance and stature.

But if the Security Council is to become increasingly active, interventionist and effective, then it is highly likely that the erosion of representational and procedural legitimacy, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and judicial accountability, would lead many developing and non-Western countries to question the authority of the Council even more forcefully — no authorization without representation.

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