Russian Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenzia during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the UN Security Council on April 4. Photo : UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Russian Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenzia during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the UN Security Council on April 4. Photo : UN Photo/Manuel Elías

The UN is experiencing a serious crisis following the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Security Council is paralyzed by the Russian use of its veto power, which serves to cover up its misdeeds and exactions. Is there a solution?

The majority votes of the United Nations General Assembly, first to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, then to suspend Moscow’s participation in the Human Rights Council, cannot hide the serious crisis that the UN is facing. Theoretically responsible for ensuring peace and security in the world, the Security Council is paralyzed by the Russian use of its veto power. In fact, the situation is astonishing, with the aggressor having the legal and institutional power to protect itself from hostile condemnations and resolutions. Could a new General Assembly vote against Russia, followed by institutional and legal reform, unblock the situation? There are serious reasons to doubt it. Beyond the support, more or less measured, that Russia enjoys, erected as the “Great Other” of the West, the United Nations system is stumbling over fundamental contradictions. Multilateralism, the ideal of collective security and international political cooperation cannot abolish hostility, conflict and the laws of power. A collective security system without Russia, the revisionist powers close to them and the “non-aligned” states, which are opposed to such an initiative, would turn into an alliance uniting one part of the world against another. Without losing sight of the sense of universality, the Western powers must therefore give priority to their own bodies. However, they must not choose the wrong level of power and give in to Europeanist constructivism.

An ancient aspiration to world order

First of all, the importance of the UN as a forum for collective security must be emphasized. The rotundity of the Earth, the fact that we live in a “full world” (Pierre Chaunu) — politically, economically and demographically — and the density of interdependencies that link places and spaces require a somewhat institutionalized global international system. In fact, bilateral links between nations, the occasional organization of summits between heads of state and government (the concert of powers) and the expansion of flows are not enough to ensure a minimal order. More generally, trade alone and the hopes invested in “peace through trade” do not guarantee world stability1. The outbreak of the First World War, a philosophical failure of the 19th century, amply demonstrated this fact. The existence of solid international institutions and the development of legal rules are therefore necessary for the ordering of relations between the different political units and for world peace. Hence Woodrow Wilson’s desire to establish a “general association of nations”, later called the League of Nations2.

Moreover, the establishment of the League of Nations, and later of the United Nations, is in line with the noble and ancient cosmopolitical ideal, irreducible to a flat multiculturalism (the “Kosmos” of the Ancient Greeks is an ordered and hierarchical world). In the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s gesture (it inaugurates the Hellenistic era), from the Mediterranean basin to India, the Stoic philosophers call for a universal city, open to men and gods. To a certain extent, the Roman Empire and the Pax Romana concretely translate such a vision, this form of “cosmopolitics” constituting the basis of the law of nations (jus gentium). In the Middle Ages, the idea of Christianity renewed the aspiration to unity. Ideally, the kingdoms, principalities and fiefs of the Old West formed parts of a Respublica Christiana open to the heavenly homeland. When ancient Rome was wavering on its foundations, Saint Augustine became the thinker of this Christian republic with a universal and eschatological dimension (cf. The City of God, 412-426). Unfortunately, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the long struggle between the Priesthood and the Empire exhausted these two powers and ruined the very idea of a universal monarchy.

The states and territorial princes then entered into a long confrontation for supremacy, a phenomenon comparable to what Chinese history calls the time of the “fighting kingdoms”. Anxious to maintain a Christian political order, the Spanish scholastics (Vitoria, Suarez), heirs of Aristotelian-Thomism, and the theoreticians of the law of nations (Grotius, Pufendorf) took up the ideas and representations of the Middle Ages. For them, the existence of a “general society of the human kind” constituted the presupposition of natural law, whose rules obliged the sovereigns on moral and religious levels. In the eighteenth century, there were many projects for union and perpetual peace, mainly that of Immanuel Kant in 17953. Although the “scientific revolution” of the previous century had undermined the vision of the world as a cosmos, these projects recapitulated the historical, philosophical and theological heritage of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. They will inspire the collective security systems of the 20th century, but also the formation of NATO and the European Union, these Euro-Atlantic bodies referring to the principles of what is called the “liberal international order”.

From theory to practice

Thus, Kant’s philosophical opus was Woodrow Wilson’s bedside book. At the end of the First World War, the challenge was to move from theory to practice, with the founding of the League of Nations being the ultimate objective of the Peace Conference (Paris, 1919). Beyond historical contingencies, notably the non-ratification of the Treaty of Versailles by the United States, the failure can be explained by the fact that a system of collective security ultimately relies on the goodwill of nations, and even more so of the great powers. If the League of Nations was compared to “a parliament without a sword,” the United Nations was founded on a combination of idealism and realism. A Wilsonian thwarted by the facts after the First World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nonetheless driven by the vision of universal peace, assured by the rule of law and collective security. But he took into account the power relations between nations. Thus the unequal status of the permanent members of the Security Council and the other states reflects the hierarchy of nations and their unequal contribution to the international order. In keeping with the old precept that everyone has rights in proportion to their duties, the privilege of the veto is seen as the counterpart to the responsibilities that rest on the shoulders of the permanent members. Such status implies a broad conception of one’s interests and a sense of the common good of humankind.

When the UN was founded, the Second World War was not yet over, but the outline of the Cold War was taking shape, starting with the Teheran Conference (1943). Very quickly, the hopes invested in the perpetuation in peacetime of the “Great Alliance” — cemented by the mere existence of a common enemy: the Third Reich — were shattered by geopolitical realities. Throughout this “Fifty Years’ War” (Georges-Henri Soutou), the Security Council was paralyzed by the frontal opposition between East and West and the systematic use of the veto. During the “new détente” that preceded the end of the Cold War, the UN was revitalized for a time by the West and the USSR in order to resolve several regional conflicts. From 1987-1988, various peacekeeping missions were conducted and the “reawakening of the UN” became a leitmotif. Operation Desert Storm, conducted against the troops of Saddam Hussein, the invader of Kuwait, benefited from a United Nations mandate, with the approval of the USSR (1990-1991). The time for a “new international order” — based on the primacy of the UN, multilateralism and law — seemed to have come. From the Balkan wars in the 1990s to the “Arab Spring” of the following decade, the Security Council was most often divided and therefore powerless (see the cases of Kosovo and Syria).

Paralyzed most of the time, the UN Security Council cannot therefore play the central role it should. In truth, this is not a regrettable dysfunction: the hopes invested in UN multilateralism come up against the force of things, i.e. the essence of politics. In the absence of a supranational Leviathan, arbitral power and defensor pacis, the “state of nature”, in the sense of endemic insecurity, remains an underlying reality. Only the presence of a “hegemonic stabilizer”4, determined to provide a kind of international public service, is able to contain disorder (not without local wars). In other words, the world oscillates between Hobbes and Kant. It should be noted that the UN has little to do with the federation of free republics that the philosopher from Königsberg had in mind. The nature of governments is not taken into account, and the United Nations has therefore integrated many authoritarian and tyrannical regimes (systematization of arbitrariness, stifling of freedoms), some of them revisionist. In the minds of the Russian and Chinese leaders, international law is limited to their veto. Their conception of unlimited power, within hermetic borders, breaks with the idea of a sovereignty ordered to the “common good”, to the morality of the Decalogue and to natural law.

Quid facere ?

In the present war of Russia against Ukraine, it is a member state of the Security Council that has undertaken to cut up and destroy another, full member of the UN. The fact is enough to expose the vanity of this system of collective security; Moscow uses its veto power to cover up its misdeeds and exactions. The height of cynicism was reached when Kyiv, visited by the UN Secretary General, was bombed. Docile, the latter had previously gone to Moscow to patiently undergo the logomachy of Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov. There is no better way to illustrate the contempt in which Russian leaders hold international institutions, seen as effects of Western hegemony. In the troubled world they anticipate, international relations should be recomposed around the Beijing-Moscow duo, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a front of revisionist and revengeful powers (the multipolar discourse is an anti-Western polemic). The mistake would be to believe that recourse to the UN General Assembly would be the answer to the present situation. It is true that it was possible to condemn the Russian aggression in Ukraine and to suspend Moscow’s participation in the Human Rights Council. However, one cannot ignore the growing number of states that abstained or did not participate in these two votes5. And the number of states that have implemented sanctions is very small (it hardly exceeds the limits of the Western world).

It must be realized that the impotence of the UN cannot be solved by institutional reform, by strengthening international law or by any technical arrangement. Let us pass over the fact that the very existence of the veto right prohibits any reform that would not be approved by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. It is certainly possible to imagine a majority vote in the General Assembly to expel Russia from the Council, but this would probably mean the end of the UN. As for the enlargement of this decision-making body to include other powers with veto power, it would lead to general paralysis. The General Assembly could then decide to abolish this veto right, but such a reform would come up against the physics of power, as no state of weight would be ready to submit to the deliberations of a “parliament without a sword”. Indeed, would the Western powers be willing to accept resolutions passed by a majority of Afro-Asian and Latin American states? The same ones who are so much sensitive to the arguments of Russia and China, potential leaders of a “Global South”? This brings us back to the fact that a system of collective security depends on the goodwill of all. But the world is not exclusively populated by men of good will.

Ultimately, the West must rely on its own bodies. French leaders favour the European Union, but the development of its “strategic autonomy” is hampered by the fact that it is not a global geostrategic actor. For that to happen, the European Union would have to transform itself into a United States of Europe, with a federal government and a unified military chain of command. It is not moving in that direction. Moreover, there is no hegemonic leader with sufficient power and legitimacy to forge a consensus among member states and take the lead. Just look at the attitude of Paris and Berlin on the eve of the Russian offensive in Ukraine and the negotiations to decide on an oil embargo. Where would Europe be without the diplomatic and military commitment of the United States? Everything leads us to NATO, the structuring axis of a Euro-Atlantic “Greater Space”. By assuming the role of hegemonic stabilizer, the United States has given a politico-military form to what the history of civilizations calls the West6. In the light of the “new history of empires”, and the broad definition it gives to this type of political unit, perhaps we should concede the existence of a kind of Western empire, a cooperative whole that combines American hegemony, the consent of allies and forms of multilateralism7. Note that this development is consistent with Arnold Toynbee’s historical-philosophical scheme: the transformation of a civilization into a political-military empire, after exhausting “civil wars”, in order to meet external challenges.

Making movement

One might object to the fact that the existence and strengthening of this Western “Greater Space” is part of a logic not of collective security, but of mutual defense, from the Euro-Atlantic zone to the Indo-Pacific. They do not provide a global response to the problems posed by the deficiencies of the UN. But the hopes invested in it, and in the liberal international order, come up against the indescribable contradictions of reality. In the long history of the world, it appears that stability and security are based on a combination of peace by force, peace by empire, peace by law. Only the unity and firmness of the Western camp, through its own bodies, will make it possible to counter Russia, China and other revisionist powers that think their time has come. And this Western camp constitutes an international system.

The West, as a form of civilization, is unique, and its leaders should not sin by babelism. However, to give in to the syndrome of the “besieged fortress” or to believe oneself sheltered from the world’s clashes, behind one’s parapets, would be erroneous; the “correlation of forces” would be modified to one’s disadvantage. It is therefore important to move, to consolidate its alliances and to make geopolitical gains in the outside world, even if it is hostile. In this respect, it is through the G7 that the Western powers will work to expand the frontiers of liberal democracy and the free market: a “G7+” open, in particular, to the countries of South and East Asia, in search of offshore balancing. With a league of free nations as a regulating ideal, even though it is obvious that the countries gathered cannot be aligned on all issues. In short, Western leader should prove a taste for principles and a sense of contingency.

  1. The theme of “peace through trade” appears notably in the works of Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant. It constitutes a line of force of the 19th century. In the Belle Epoque, personalities such as Jean de Bloch and Norman Angell were still convinced that economic rationality would prevent a great world conflict, destructive for all because of the interdependence between nations. 

  2. Although the Fourteen Points speech, delivered on January 8, 1918, mentioned a future “general association of nations”, this point of the American presidential program did not come to the fore until the fall of 1918. Wilson was then convinced of the imminent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the need to counter Bolshevik revolutionism. 

  3. It should be remembered that Kant considered his treaty of perpetual peace to be a “rêverie”. He made this clear to his disciple and popularizer, Johann Gottfried Kiesewetter. 

  4. In The World in Depression 1929-1939, published in 1973, the American economist Charles Kindleberger explains that the existence of a global hegemonic power (a stabilizer) is one of the conditions for a stable international economy. The theory of the “hegemonic stabilizer” (Kindleberger refers to it as “hegemonic leadership”) was later extended to the international order. 

  5. On March 2, 2022, the resolution condemning the Russian aggression was widely voted (141 states out of 193). However, a good part of the African States did not condemn the Russian aggression on Ukraine (17 abstentions and 8 absences from participating in the vote, out of a total of 54 African States), many of them also refusing, on 7 April, to suspend Russia’s participation in the Human Rights Council (a total of 93 votes in favor, 24 against and 5 abstentions). Beyond Africa, we must take into account the position of demographic and territorial giants such as China, a de facto ally of Russia, India, Indonesia, etc. In short, half the world is on a line of distance, even hostility towards the West. 

  6. On “the first and longest permanence”, see Fernand Braudel and his Grammaire des civilisations, Flammarion, 1993. Previously published by Arthaud, in 1987, this work takes up the central part of a manual conceived in 1963. 

  7. The expression refers to the return of empires to the field of study of historians and political scientists. See in particular Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank, Empires. From Ancient China to the Present, 2008. In 2013, the French review Sciences Humaines published a special issue on “The New History of Empires” (Special Issue No. 2, November-December 2013). 

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