Bush sent American troops into Iraq without the backing of the UNited Nations, how relevant is the UN?

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On March 19, 2003, President George W Bush sent American troops into Iraq to destroy the Hussein regime and seek out weapons of mass destruction.  Although he had the support of over thirty-five countries, in taking this action, Bush breached international law by acting without a United Nations (UN) mandate. (Hanly 2003, p. 3).  With this breach began a debate about the relevance of the United Nations as a peacekeeping tool within the modern global arena.  Critics argue that the organisation has become a “theatre of the absurd or a mere debating society, no longer relevant to the broader issues of international relations,” (Murphy 1983, p. xiii)  Advocates argue that with current world political tension, the UN is becoming an increasingly indispensable “forum in which the full pressure of publicity and public opinion is brought to bear on involved parties,” (Annan 2002, p.18.)

This essay will contend that while the United Nations strives to fulfill an honorable mission, in its current operational capacity it is no longer a relevant means of achieving international peace and security – its primary objective under the charter.  To demonstrate this, three arguments will be explored.  Firstly it will be asserted that the liberal foundation of the UN is essentially undermined by the realist nature of international politics.  Secondly, it will be established that the UN has not adapted to deal appropriately with revolutionary warfare, which has superseded traditional state-to-state conflict, and “does not fall neatly within the scope of the charter,” (Murphy 1983, p. xi).  Finally, it will be shown that while the UN was not established as a world government with correlative police powers, its lack of power to enforce its mandates contributes to a growing irrelevance as powerful member states actively undermine UN ruling.

Firstly, the juxtaposition of ideologies of the United Nations and its member states is such that the organisation is limited in its capacity to fulfill its mission under the Charter.  After World War II and the collapse of the League of Nations, there was a resurgence of liberal sentiment, epitomized by the creation of the United Nations in 1945 (Dunne in Baylis and Smith 2001, p. 163) The primary mission of the founding document, the Charter, is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” (Charter of the United Nations,  ).  According to Dunne (in Baylis and Smith 2001, p. 164) this mission embodies “the high water mark of liberal thinking in international relations: that warfare is an unnecessary and outmoded way of settling disputes between states.”

While it is true that many member states aspire to certain aspects of liberalism (for example, many nations embrace free trade), according to Hoffman (1987 p.396), realism is the dominant theory of international relations.  Realism does not accommodate the “essence” of liberalism, which is “self-restraint, moderation, compromise and peace.” Rather, Dunne and Schmidt (in Baylis and Smith 2001, p. 142) suggest that most important to realism is the pursuance of power by the state.  They write “it is the duty of the statesperson to calculate rationally the most appropriate steps that should be taken so as to perpetuate the life of the state in a hostile, threatening environment.”  Furthermore, they note that in fulfilling this duty, the use of force resulting in war, is a valid tool.   Hoffman (1987 p.396) argues it is this line of thought that infiltrates international affairs. He notes, “International affairs have been the nemesis of liberalism.”  

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The realist attitude of states is particularly evident regarding the area of security and defense, where such self-orientated beliefs often lead states to be engaged in a ‘security dilemma’. In this case, “attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and the measures of others as potentially threatening,” (Herz 1950, p.157)

The existence of such dilemmas is becoming increasingly evident in today’s global society and is exampled in the current crisis surrounding North Korea, where diplomatic talks ...

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