The radioactive question of Iran's nuclear program has now landed in the lap of the United Nations Security Council. Which is downright odd because, according to many learned observers, the Security Council's authority all but vanished when the United States and Britain bypassed it to invade Iraq in 2003. Or when the NATO countries ignored it and bombed Serbia in 1999. Or, if you prefer, when it stood by as genocide consumed Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s.
In fact, the Security Council — keystone of the U.N.'s collective security system — has had a lackluster record of international crisis management since it was created after World War II. Conceived by Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill as the world's police force, the Security Council has vast legal powers. Quite literally, it has the authority to run the world. As long as it declares a threat to international peace and security, it can fight wars, impose blockades, unseat governments and redraw borders.
Yet its five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — have only occasionally deployed those powers effectively.
For most of the Cold War, the Security Council was a forum for meaningless resolutions and mediocre rhetoric. Its most famous moments were fiery clashes between American and Soviet diplomats. "I'm prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over!" thundered U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson as he brandished photos of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. It made for great television (and many of the early Security Council debates were televised). But the Soviet Union's veto meant that the council couldn't actually do anything about the missiles.
In the 1970s and 1980s, rabid anti-Israel sentiment stoked by the Soviet Union often turned the council into a repulsive inquisition, in which Arab countries and their allies made outlandish accusations against Israel and the United States. At one meeting in 1982, the representative from Djibouti said that the behavior of Israeli soldiers "reminded us of the sadistic bouts of laughter and amusement of the Nazi Germans." Israel's ambassador, a Holocaust survivor, listened in disbelief.
The Security Council has used its powers well in only a few cases since its birth in 1946. At the start of the Korean War, an ill-advised Soviet walkout allowed the remaining members to authorize a U.S.-led multinational force to come to South Korea's rescue. But the Soviets eventually returned — and so did paralysis.
The council's finest moment was probably the Persian Gulf War, when the United States helped build a coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait. But these moments have been the exceptions. Division and inaction have been the norm. If the council were applying for the job of running the world, it wouldn't get a second look.
And yet it never disappears. The rhetoric and polling data in the run-up to the Iraq war suggest that many people around the world — and particularly in Europe — see Security Council approval as a prerequisite to military action. In Britain, for instance, support for the 2003 Iraq invasion jumped when respondents were asked to assume that the council had blessed the mission. Even in the United States, traditionally more skeptical of the United Nations, a CNN poll found that the percentage of Americans who supported an invasion of Iraq doubled if the council approved.
Now the Bush administration has decided that the Security Council is the place to make a stand against Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran's pattern of deception and alarming rhetoric prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international nuclear watchdog, to refer the case to the council, which began meeting on the issue this week. This is all to the good. When the world's five largest nuclear powers speak as one, even governments that would prefer to flout the international community tend to listen. The Security Council can also herd the great powers into agreement and prevent them from sending mixed messages.
But if the members cannot agree, or only utter platitudes, the council becomes a brake on effective action. As the Rwandan genocide unfolded in 1994, the council met almost continuously and poured forth statements decrying the violence. The slaughter continued, however, and members hid behind the council's inaction. The crisis in Darfur, unfortunately, has been much the same. With the death toll mounting, the council has inched painfully toward replacing an ineffective African peacekeeping force with a more robust version.
Iran may well be next on the inaction list. China and Russia strongly oppose sanctions. Last week, they even prevented passage of a statement that would have admonished Iran to cooperate with the international nuclear inspectors. "We want a constructive statement," China's ambassador, Wang Guangya, said, adding that the Western countries "want to be too tough." If Iran continues its defiance and China and Russia refuse to endorse tough action, the council's utility will end. The Bush administration, with whatever allies it can muster, would then presumably form an ad hoc coalition to try to tackle Tehran through sanctions or, as a last resort, military force. And that would be the right move.
However, not everyone agrees that such ad hoc coalitions can bypass the Security Council at will. Those inclined to a legalistic view of international relations — notably Europe and the American left — see the council as much more than a useful diplomatic tool. For them, it is a critical check on the anarchy of international relations. Any coercive steps against Iran must, they insist, receive the council's imprimatur. Without it, coercion is illegal and illegitimate.
As a matter of international law, this view is probably correct. But viewing the council as a species of world government ignores one overriding reality: The Security Council was created by power politics, and it remains an instrument of those politics. The only reason the United States, Britain, Russia and China have permanent seats is because they won World War II. (France was granted a seat in recognition of its past prominence — a gift that many U.S. administrations have no doubt wished they could take back.)
Fairness has little to do with who sits at the table. The 10 rotating members on the 15-member council are chosen for two-year terms by region, not merit. Indeed, Rwanda sat on the council while it perpetrated the genocide. Judged purely on performance, the council hasn't earned legitimacy.
If the U.S. and other Western powers decide to bypass the council, the internationalists will accuse them of undermining international law and order. Policymakers should tune them out. The world remains chaotic enough that the substance of international security must still trump procedure. A blissfully united council means little if rogue regimes acquire nuclear weapons.
There's another reason to ignore the purists: They will certainly exaggerate the danger of the council's demise. It will survive the Iran crisis just as it weathered the Iraq war and decades of irrelevance during the Cold War. And if the great powers once again see their interests align, the Security Council will still be there, ready to serve.
David L. Bosco is a Senior Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine.