TNI Authors on the Campaign Trail

Lee Feinstein, "UN-Divided", The National Interest, Winter 2005-2006.

THE NEW consensus about America's relationship to international institutions is driven by a transformation in the nature of sovereignty. This is a genuine revolution resulting from the experience of the genocides of the 1990s and today's transnational threats and challenges, which are radically different from those anticipated at the UN's founding sixty years ago. This transformation has been hastened by a period of self-examination and intellectual ferment stimulated by the Security Council rupture over Iraq in 2003. This will be seen as a watershed as important as the Congress of Vienna, which established what we now refer to as the Westphalian system. For international law, this is nothing short of the redefinition of the formal (if fictional) notion of sovereignty that has obtained for the past 350 years.

The traditional realist approach of the UN as a meeting place of sovereign states is slowly changing to catch up to the reality on the ground. The principles of the formal equality of sovereign states, the inviolability of international borders and the monopoly of force within one's own borders is yielding to state sovereignty that is contingent on the nature and behavior of a regime. The perception that fairness in the international system is somehow measured by the degree to which each country gets an equal say-one country, one vote-is also under challenge.

There are two components to contingent sovereignty. The first is the extent to which a country enjoys sovereign rights and privileges, which has been described as the principle of conditional sovereignty. The second is the standards that may be used to distinguish among sovereign nations; call it differentiated sovereignty.

Conditional sovereignty is the notion that sovereignty entails responsibilities as well as rights. The most famous application of this principle has come to be known as the "responsibility to protect." The principle is that a state's first responsibility is to protect those within its borders from atrocities. States that fail to fulfill that responsibility, through acts of either commission or omission, are accountable for their actions. The second element of the responsibility to protect concerns the moral responsibilities of the rest of the world. As Gingrich and Mitchell put it, "In certain circumstances, a government's abnegation of its responsibilities to its own people is so severe that the collective nations' responsibility to take action cannot be denied." In such cases "the principle of nonintervention yields to the international responsibility to protect. " . . .

The Security Council breakdown over Iraq highlighted the mismatch between the idealism of the UN's founding principles and the reality that the UN is weakest where its charter says it is supposed to be central: "preventing the scourge of war." Senator Biden surprised an audience of Democrats recently when he said bluntly, "The United Nations is not capable of ending wars in our times [or] intervening in ways to prevent war most times." He proposes to "reorient . . . the UN to the purpose of stabilizing weak states." In refocusing the UN's role, this is similar to proposals advanced by long-term UN skeptics.

In truth, the UN's flaws as a collective security organization are no greater today than they have been throughout its history. But in facing current dangers of proliferation, terrorism, state failure and genocide, the costs of UN incapacity, inaction and paralysis are in some cases greater and almost always less acceptable.

Tangible proposals to fill this gap focus on greater cooperation among the world's democracies. 3 Refocusing and strengthening NATO to serve as an international genocide-prevention arm is one approach. Others have called for the establishment of a formal "alliance of democracies" that, unlike NATO, would not be regionally based or organized against a particular threat. Much less practical is a proposed union of democracies and other states who pre-commit to cooperative actions on poverty reduction, counter-terrorism and nonproliferation as a condition of membership. 4 Common to all these alternatives is the search for effective and agile multilateral institutions within which the United States can work cooperatively, effectively and with greater international legitimacy. Competitor institutions are also intended to have an impact on the UN itself. Competition will either spur the UN to do better or marginalize it. Hopefully the former.

To read the rest of this article, click here. Feinstein also discussed the future of the United Nations with Ruth Wedgwood at a National Interest event in March. A report on the discussion is available here.


Kim R. Holmes, "Ensuring a Legacy", The National Interest, January/February 2007.

President Bush has already established a lasting legacy in fighting terrorism by toppling the Taliban regime and breaking up Osama bin Laden's operational network. He also instituted a set of new laws and regulations on detainees, interrogations and surveillance, in an effort to give U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials the tools they need to combat terrorism. Though these steps are likely to be challenged by a Democratically controlled Congress, there is no doubt that in the War on Terror our laws and regulations will need to be refined to balance the needs of security with civil rights.