The United Nations; 65 Years of Success or Failure?

un fightBy Ian Howarth

The preamble of the founding Charter of the United Nations (1945) sets out its principles, and its norms, and as such is probably the fairest way by which to judge the organisations success or failure.


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


(UN Charter, San Francisco, 26th June 1945)

The basic structure of the United Nations (UN) consists of three key components, the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretary General’s Office.  The General Assembly is the body where all member states have a seat and a vote on resolutions placed by the various member states before the Assembly. Here resolutions are passed by a simple majority.  In the case of the admittance of new members or matters of great importance such as peace and security a two thirds majority is required.’ However, the decisions of the General Assembly are not legally binding on the member states and their enforcement relies on the moral weight of the UN and world opinion.

The Security Council is made up of fifteen member states, five permanent members, China, United States, United Kingdom, France and the Russian Federation which represent the great power relationships as they stood at the UN’s foundation, and ten member states elected by the General Assembly for two year terms.  Currently the ten elected seats are held by, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Rwanda and Togo.  The Security Council is the power wielding institution of the UN, the five permanent members each hold the ability to veto any motion placed before the council, (the ten elected members do not have a veto). Resolutions adopted by the Council are legally binding on all the member states, and the Council has the powers to enforce its resolutions through economic sanctions or even military action.  The Security Council is the body within international relations that grants legitimacy or otherwise to the actions of its member states.

The successes and failures of the UN can be measured against the achievements or otherwise of its founding principles and norms, the fundamental one being that “armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest”. In short the UN was established by the victors of the Second World War to prevent another world war, which became a more urgent endeavour in the fresh glow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is apparent that the UN has failed to bring about world peace and end all war.  However, it would be wrong to conclude that due to this the organization is a failure.  There are gradients of success and failure and when one looks at the broad scope of the post-war period up to the present there are clear initiatives taken by the UN that have averted armed conflict and brought the aggressors to the bargaining table.  There are also periods over the last 57 years when the UN has failed miserably in its responsibilities under its founding charter, and in the next few paragraphs I shall highlight and explore these failures and successes and attempt to form a judgment on the performance of this regime.

The failures of the UN are unfortunately more numerous than its achievements, incidents in which the UN failed to intervene include Vietnam (1954-1973), Afghanistan (1979-1989), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), East Timor (1978) Rwanda (1995), the Invasion of Iraq (2003) and the current on-going bloody civil war in Syria to name but a few.  The first incident that I am going to highlight is the Budapest uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring (1968), during which Hungary and Czechoslovakia both nations that had been under Soviet domination since 1945 briefly regained their independence, before the Soviet tanks rolled in and quashed the uprisings.  The failure here of the United Nations highlighted the true measure of its powers within the cold war bipolar system.  The USSR and the USA had both agreed spheres of influence, and Hungary and Czechoslovakia lay well within the Soviet sphere, consequently the UN was handicapped to intervene on the principle of self-determination set out in its charter due to the veto powers of the Security Council.  This incident just went to further highlight the power that the superpowers held over the UN and their manipulation of the UN in their continuing cold war.

The above example also highlights the way in which the decision making processes of the UN can and often do prevent the UN from being a more pro-active force in international relations.  The powers held by the permanent members of the Security Council mean that the interests of these members can never be placed under the scrutiny of the General Assembly or the Secretary General.

Another failure of great significance is Rwanda in 1995; this is significant due to the fact that the Cold War was over.  The failure in this case was entirely down to a lack of leadership and an inability by the UN to galvanize the necessary support from the western member states in order to send in an intervention force, consequently the world looked on as hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were massacred by their Hutu neighbours in a demonstration of ethnic cleansing not seen since Stalin’s purges.  This humanitarian disaster was symptomatic of the failures of the UN throughout the 1990’s.  Srebrenica in the same year as the Rwanda genocide saw ‘7000 Bosnian Muslim’s’ (Calvocoressi; 2001) massacred in the worst genocide in Europe since the end of the Second World War.  In both instances the UN failed to intervene in time, and in the case of Srebrenica the Dutch UN peacekeepers watched on as thousands were taken from the UN enclave and murdered.

These incidents only went to highlight the inability of the UN to operate without the support of its member states and primarily the Security Council.  The weak mandate in Bosnia led to the appalling events of Srebrenica and no mandate at all led to genocide in Rwanda.

In short the failures of the UN since its inception can be placed into two categories; those that were related to the cold war power plays of the Superpowers e.g. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Angola etc. This meant the Security Council was never going to intervene with both the United States and the Soviet Union holding a veto.  And those that were down to poor leadership and a lack of political will, such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and East Timor (1978).

However despite the indications above to the contrary the UN has recorded a number of successes, which include Korea (1950-1952) East Timor (1999-2002), Persian Gulf (1991) Cyprus (1972- Present), Congo (1960-1964) Sierra Leone (1998) Kosovo (1999) and Libya (2011).

The first significant and arguably successful intervention under UN auspices after its foundation was the Korean War.  The UN largely under American pressure landed a massive coalition force on the Korean peninsula in order to preserve South Korean independence in the face of North Korean aggression.  However, despite the failure as the United States considers it to defeat the North Koreans the UN did succeed in re-establishing the pre-war status quo on the peninsula a situation which remains to this day.  However the success in Korea was the first indication of the nature of the relationship between Washington and the UN in New York.  The United States was intent on using the UN to further its fight against communism and exacerbate attempts by the UN to intervene in proxy wars across the world e.g. Angola, El Salvador.

Despite the UN’s failure to intervene when Indonesia invaded East Timor shortly after its independence from the Dutch in 1978 the UN intervention to preserve East Timorese self-determination in the wake of a wave of violence following the referendum on independence in September 2000 was an overwhelming success.  Although the majority of UN forces arrived a month late on the ground it clearly prevented a more serious incident and directly led to the independence of East Timor from Indonesia in 2002.  Sierra Leone also represents an achievement by the UN although a lot less resounding than East Timor, the UN force in Sierra Leone initially faced a lot of pressure due to a weak mandate and an insufficient number of troops.  However, after the UN supported British intervention in 2000/2001 to re-enforce the UN mission and the adoption of a more robust mandate a final resolution to that nation’s decade long conflict between the government and rebel forces was secured.  A UN intervention in Angola has also brought about a settlement after 30 years of war.

The Persian Gulf War was also a significant UN achievement.  The coalition force that was assembled during operation Desert Shield in late 1990 and early 1991 was done so under a Security Council resolution.  The defeat of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Kuwait was a resounding success, which brought about great hopes for future UN intervention’s which were later dashed by the incidents in Bosnia and elsewhere. The implementation of sanctions against Iraq by the UN was also initially a success, with an estimated 85% of Iraq’s biological weapons stockpiles being destroyed, and the entire nuclear weapon development programme being shut down.  However, later events that led up to the US/UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked one of the UNs lowest points in its sixty years of history.  The divisions that opened up in the Security Council before and during that period were far greater than at any time since the Cold War, and utterly paralysed the UN as an actor in the ensuing conflict.

Other areas of the world that UN intervention has brought about positive results include Ethiopia and Eritrea.  The Congo in the early 1960’s almost bankrupted the UN and led to heavy casualties amongst the UN Force but it did succeed in ending the civil war and re-uniting the Congo.  It was the first UN led intervention within a member state, something the charter forbade.  The lessons of this intervention also partly explain the reluctance within the UN to intervene in conflicts within member states such as Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as the on-going war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Despite the UNs failure to end war and its significant and numerous failures, the organisation has brought about change for the good, and remains the primary force for conflict resolution and international cooperation.  The existence of rival institutions such as NATO which also aims to promote global security has weakened the ability of the UN.  However, significantly there has so far been no third world war.  It is arguable that the institutional framework of the UN provided the superpowers with a vital non-violent means to confront and discuss issues in a formal environment within which each felt equally legitimate and non-threatened.  It is important to note that up until Gorbachev’s détente of the late 1980’s there was no regular contact between the Soviet Union and the USA, and therefore without the contact that the UN provided, misunderstandings could have grown into something much more serious.

The UN was established primarily to prevent a third world war and provide conflicting parties a means by which to meet and negotiate.  Within the terms of that ambition this regime has so far succeeded.  Furthermore, its norms and principles have been accepted by all the member states and although not yet implemented by all, the fundamental ideal of human rights, and meaningful discussion rather than war has gained ground and greater acceptance throughout the world. +


Calvocoressi, Peter (2001) ‘World Politics 1945-2000’ p346-347 Longman: Harlow England p235, 237

Krasner, Stephen (1983) ‘International Regimes’ p2, Cornell University Press, Ithaca: New York.

Stern, Geoffrey (2000) ‘The Structure of International Society’ 2nd Edition, p237, Pinter: London


The Legitimacy of War; An Argument in Defence of Human Rights

unBy Ian Howarth

The international community should sanction the use of military force against states that have through their own actions such as committing gross human rights violations, made their claims to sovereignty illegitimate.  This principle lies at the heart of the argument for the legitimacy of an extension within international relations of prescriptive war on human rights grounds.

Prescriptive War is conflict fought or instigated on pre-determined rules/laws contained within treaty obligations (United Nations Charter, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) or in the enforcement of internationally recognised values (Human Rights).  The central principle of prescriptive war is the pre-determined nature of its responses; if State(s) A, does X then State(s) B can do Y, with no further re-course to a higher institution or power.  It is a structural framework that pre-judges responses to pre-defined events in international relations.

Prescriptive War has been defined above but before continuing it is important to define some of the other terms used in this essay and explain the categorization of Just and Cosmopolitan War as prescriptive war.  Just War is a prescriptive war because it is determined as just or unjust through the application of defined criteria (Grotius, & Articles 2 & 51 of the UN Charter), similarly a cosmopolitan war is defined by the conflicts aim, or in its result; which is the extension or enforcement of the principles of moral cosmopolitanism.  The use of the term ‘cosmopolitan war’ in place of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is deliberate to highlight its political aspirations beyond immediate or long-term humanitarian needs.

Moral Cosmopolitanism:

‘Cosmopolitanism is an ancient term which shares its origins with the concept of natural law in stoicism and the stoic’s famous claim to be a citizen of the universe (cosmopolis) and not simply a citizen of any particular polity’ (Hutchings, 1999: 35).  The meaning of the stoics claim was that the standards governing human conduct were ‘inscribed in nature and available to reason’ (Hutchings, 1999: 35).  As Hutchings argues ‘The search for a universally applicable account of the quality of human life has, on its side, the promise of a greater power to stand up for the lives of those whom tradition has oppressed and marginalized.’  (Hutchings, 1999: 41)

The basis of the cosmopolitan critique of the international system is the belief in essential truths about humanity that transcend political and theological structures.  These truths are that all human beings share a common moral identity, which is premised on the belief that there are universal standards of normative judgment that come from our common morality, and that there should be a cosmopolitan political order to establish and protect these principles.  Not all moral cosmopolitans subscribe to the last principle, as it is the central idealist aspiration of political cosmopolitan critique.

While political cosmopolitanism in particular is likely to use moral assertions in its arguments, moral cosmopolitanism which is primarily concerned with the first two principles, common human morality, and the ability to base universal normative judgments on this morality, does not require a supra national cosmopolitan political order.  Therefore, moral cosmopolitans can be found in almost all theoretical approaches in international relations, they can be realists, Hedley Bull, or critical theorists, Michael Walzer, as well as political cosmopolitans like David Held, Andrew Linklater and Daniele Archibugi.  They all take the current state system as a given fact and attempt to import moral cosmopolitan certainties in to the existing international order from their differing theoretical approaches.

Therefore, moral cosmopolitanism is not necessarily political in its applications; it is prescribing a set of principles and examining various levels of human interaction and authority by them.  As a consequence, it can be applied to various issues, such as human rights, distributive justice, and within other theoretical frameworks, e.g. Utilitarianism and Marxism.  The central principles of moral cosmopolitan theory are going to be addressed in this chapter, through focusing on the ideals of common human rights, and the basis from which the enforcement of these rights can be used to sanction the use of military force.

Cosmopolitan arguments on the existence of universal human rights are recognised in other schools of thought.  International society theorists argue that ‘every member of the world’s population…[posses]…equal rights as human beings- human rights – regardless of the country they happen to live in.  But they also see human rights at the present time still subordinate to the rights of sovereign states.’  (Booth & Smith, 1995: 111)  This approach is distinctive from cosmopolitanism due to the subordination of human rights to the state; they see human rights as a construct of the state, and as a consequence potentially subject to deconstruction by the state.  The moral cosmopolitan belief in the existence of a universal human morality, with the ability to ascribe normative judgments upon them is arguing that all human beings share a desire to be free, secure, and able to build safe and secure lives.  It places the individual at the centre of international relations rather than the state as the bearer of these rights, arguing that the enforcement of these rights should be the primary concern of international relations.

Cosmopolitan grounds for military action are premised on the enforcement of moral cosmopolitan values, and extend into the enforcement of plural democracy.  The prescriptive nature of this type of conflict has grown out of much older arguments about Just War Theory.  The relevance of Just War Theory to the wider question of the legitimacy of cosmopolitan prescriptive war is in its use of prescriptive pre-judgments on just grounds for taking military action.  Just War theory provides a foundation for prescriptive conflict, and in this case will highlight the distinction between wars that are ‘just’ and wars that are cosmopolitan, while also demonstrating the legitimacy of prescriptive war as a concept.

The Legitimacy of Prescriptive Conflict; Just War Theory

Just War Theory is a set of prescriptive conditions from which legitimate conflict can be declared within the international system.  These prescriptive conditions have unlike those of moral cosmopolitanism been accepted by the developed west, and are enshrined within the Charter of the United Nations, which only permits war on the basis of self-defence, or through the sanction of the Security Council.  The legitimacy of this form of conflict in international relations stands in contrast to the response of realist and other critics of the prescribed conditions that cosmopolitans argue should be adopted as legitimate grounds for action within international relations.  Michael Walzer argues that there “should be a strong international system, organised and designed to defeat aggression, to stop massacres and to guarantee the physical security of all the worlds peoples” (cited in Lloyd, 2003: 23)

Just War is a controversial concept that has entertained social philosophers and theologians over many centuries.  The characteristics of a ‘just war’ set out by theorists and academics like Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Michael Walzer allow us to determine whether a war is just war or not.  Sections of academia within international relations dispute the concept of just war, and argue that all war is unjust, that you cannot legalise war.  In particular they point to the fact that all so called ‘just wars’ are classified as such by the victors, for example the Kosovo War was proclaimed as a ‘just war’ by the British prime minister Tony Blair who said that it was  ‘…a just war in a just cause for the values of civilization itself…’  (Gilbert, 1999: 895)

In war, all sides declare their cause to be just.  In Kosovo, the stated reasons for the action taken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were illegal but according to its political leaders morally legitimate; Tony Blair declared that ‘…It is right for the international community to prevent genocide and protect human rights, even if it entails a violation of state sovereignty…’  (Cited in Archibugi, 2003: 10)  In contrast, Slobodan Milosevic’s claims within international law were entirely legal.  The argument presented by Milosevic that his campaign in Kosovo was against Albanian secessionists who threatened the integrity of the Yugoslav state was legally correct and represented a legitimate ‘just cause’.  He was motivated by the primacy of national sovereignty, the right of nations to preserve their sovereignty from internal as well as external threats.  In the eyes of Belgrade, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) represented a threat to the national integrity of Serbia and so the KLA ‘terrorists’ had to be defeated to restore this integrity.

The point here is not that Milosevic was justified to act in the way he did.  It is however that the very notion or classifications of a war as ‘just’ or illegitimate is subjective and that legality within international law does not always work in harmony with liberal humanitarian logic.  The disparity between moral justice and international law that underpins current prescriptions for war (Articles 2 & 51 of the UN Charter), represent an inadequate structure on which to base decisions on action or inaction against tyrants like Milosevic; a structure that fails to uphold and promote liberal values outside the sphere of the developed west, restricting them to domestic jurisdictions.

The Principles of Just War Theory; and the United Nations Charter:

St Thomas Aquinas (1225 –1274) first codified ‘just war’ in a theological grounding, and presented three conditions under which war can be deemed just ‘(a) it must be waged by a proper sovereign authority (b) there must be a just cause (c) the intentions must be pure, so that they intend to promote good and not private aggrandizement’ (cited in Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  The condition ‘that the cause must be just’ was so ambiguous that it essentially gave carte blanche to any political authority in Europe to go to war as often and with as much vigour for whatever represented in their view a ‘just cause’, something that has continued through the ambitions of tyrants to this day.

The theological groundings of Just War remained the basis for legitimacy until Hugo Grotius published his 1625 work ‘De Jure Belli ac Paci.’  (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288)  This took the theological justifications of war and moved them aside asserting a secular and modern definition of just war.  Grotius stated that a ‘just war’ can only be fought under one of the following conditions ‘(a) self-defence (b) to enforce rights; (c) to seek reparations for injury and: (d) to punish a wrong-doer’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  However, like the conditions set by St Thomas Aquinas, points (b) and (d) of the Grotian doctrine are also open to interpretation.  Iran saw the ‘wrong-doer’ as the United States, and declared a jihad against Americans everywhere, while President Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and argued the just cause of placing thermonuclear warheads in space to deter Soviet ‘aggression’.

Therefore, particularly to realists, ‘just war’ doctrine, like cosmopolitan arguments for humanitarian intervention, is considered dangerous and open to exploitation.  Just War in particular is criticised for setting conditions on war while at the same time leaving enough ambiguity to justify almost any action short of genocide, and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians.  Mary Kaldor argues that ‘There is a thin dividing line between socially acceptable killing and what is ostracised by society.’  (Kaldor, 2001: 17)  Grotian doctrine on just war does not clearly define where this line should be drawn.

Grotian theory ties the concept of war with the defence or enforcement of rights, which is the basis of cosmopolitan arguments, although Grotius used the term to mean the right to property, or territory, the establishment within political thought of rights beyond the material is well founded.  The American Declaration of Independence (1776) speaks of the ‘Right to life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, and earlier still is the Hobbesian defence of the divine right of Kings.  The defence of rights is central to cosmopolitan critique in arguing that the defence of human rights is as legitimate as defending a state’s rights.

Grotian doctrine split ‘just war’ into two distinct categories ‘jus ad bellum’ (lit the law towards war) and ‘jus in bello’ (lit. the law in war) (Brown, 2002: 103), it is from these two categories that the modern legal structure of war is defined.  This distinction emerged at a time in Europe that was experiencing the decline of the feudal system and the emergence of the modern nation state.  The legal sanctioning of war under papal and theological authority was losing its legitimacy and power within the emerging state system.  The shift from dynastic ambition to state based interests as the primary drive of international relations driven by the politicians of the day seized upon the Grotian concept of laws in war to regulate the ‘standing armies under the control of the state … [which are]… an integral part of the monopolization of legitimate violence…intrinsic to the modern state’ (Kaldor, 2001: 17) this provided the means by which states could pursue their interests and secure their territorial claims.

Martin Van Crevald argues that ‘to distinguish war from mere crime, it was defined as something waged by sovereign states alone.  Soldiers were defined as personnel licensed to engage in armed violence on behalf of the state…To obtain and maintain their license, soldiers had to be carefully registered, marked and controlled to the exclusion of privateering.  They were supposed to fight only when in uniform, carrying their arms ‘openly’ and obeying a commander who could be held responsible for their actions.  They were not supposed to resort to ‘dastardly’ methods such as violating truces, taking up arms again after they had been taken prisoner, and the like.  The civilian population was supposed to be left alone, ‘military necessity’ permitting.’  (Cited in Kaldor, 2001: 17-18)

The later point made by Van Crevald on the neutrality of civilians only when ‘military necessity permits’ is where Grotian doctrines of war diverge from those of cosmopolitanism over the position of civilians within a combat zone.  Cosmopolitan arguments on the conduct of war regard the preservation of civilian life as a key military necessity; one that can only be ignored were the cost of inaction would be greater than that of action.

The Grotian split in Just War theory had the effect of emphasising ‘jus in bello’ over ‘jus ad bellum’ within international law, for example the Hague (1901) and Geneva (1926,1946) Conventions regard exclusively the conduct of states within war, and not the conditions under which war can be declared.  For example, the International Organisation of the Red Cross only intercedes to assist combatants within war, and does not have the authority to assist civilian populations within nation states.  The mass deportation of Jews during World War Two to concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe was conducted with the awareness of the Red Cross; however, the activities of the SS in the death camps lay outside the organisations remit.

This emphasis on the conduct of combatants in war and not on the basis of its declaration, or the status of civilians has persisted to this day, with their being only one major legal framework for the declaration of a just war.  Article 2 of the United Nations (UN) Charter states that ‘prohibition on the use of force is qualified by two exemptions (1) the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in the face of an armed attack, preserved by Article 51; and (2) action taken for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security authorized by the UN Security Council under Article 42’ (cited in Baylis, Wirtz, Cohen & Gray, 2002: 56).

The central criticism of the prescriptions of just war as defined by Article 2 of the UN Charter is that it lacks morality.  Unlike cosmopolitan arguments, it leaves the interpretation of the doctrine open to political expediency, and the situation of non-combatants to warring parties.  The ability to apply the doctrine to a multitude of circumstances, while at the same time denying intervention on humanitarian grounds, means that ‘Just War’ doctrine can be viewed as crude, out dated and easily exploitable.  Crude in the sense that its prescriptions on the conditions under which war can be declared are no longer applicable in the developed world during the nuclear age, with its threat of mass indiscriminate slaughter; a just war between the United States and Russia is impossible due to the premise of mutually assured destruction.  In as much as the doctrine is applicable by the developed world in the developing world; e.g. the UNITAF Mission to Somalia, the chance of conflict of this nature is limited, and a wider human rights based doctrine would provide more effective responses in these situations, than seeking legal loopholes for intervention to end civil war, genocide or terrorism.

The fact that the principles upon which the United Nations stands in regard to the legitimacy of military action can be found in Just War Theory is a relevant factor within the argument over the legitimacy of cosmopolitan prescriptions for war.  Just War theory states the need for a legitimising sovereign authority, action in self-defence or the punishment of a wrong-doer for it to be enacted.  The Security Council can be seen as a sovereign authority and self-defence is as already pointed out protected within the UN charter.  The punishment of a wrong doer can be viewed within this setting through UN sanctions and the use of military force when they are ignored or breached, as in Iraq throughout the 1990’s.

The legal doctrines of the United Nations for legitimising military action prohibit such action in all but the most extreme cases, self-defence (Article 51).  Where the UN has sought to deal with humanitarian crises or the threat of international terrorism it has had to bend the Charter to almost breaking point.  In Kosovo and Somalia  ‘the theory supporting…[the]…actions was that some internal wars, at least when accompanied by war crimes, and massive human rights violations and other crimes against humanity even if unrelated to war, may threaten international peace and security and therefore were within the jurisdiction and were the responsibility of the Security Council under Chapters VI and VII of the Charter’ (Reisman 1999) This use of Articles 34, 35 & 36 as a basis for military action under Article 42, is a demonstration of the need in international law for a humanitarian prescription for war.

An Example of a Just War, The Second Gulf War:

If any War can be deemed ‘Just’ under international law, then the Second Gulf War is probably the best example of such a conflict.  The basic background to it is as follows; on the 2nd August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and annexed the territory, the United Nations Security Council on the same day responded by calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In November 1990 the ‘Security Council passed Resolution 678, which authorised military action against Iraq if it had failed to withdraw from Kuwait [by midnight on the] 15th January 1991’ (Gilbert, 1999: 713).  An international coalition force was assembled and sent to the Gulf.  On the 16th January 1991 with the coming into force of resolution 678, Operation Desert Storm commenced, it was swift and decisive leading to the withdrawal of Iraqi forces on the 26th February.  Two days later on the 28th February coalition forces entered Kuwait City and declared Kuwait liberated, while later the same day ‘Tariq Aziz Iraqi Vice-President agreed to rescind Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait’ (Gilbert, 1999: 718).

The Second Gulf War is a ‘just war’ because it complied with both Grotian doctrine and international law through Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which gives every state the right to act in self-defence either alone or collectively.  The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq represented an aggressive armed attack, and the UN coalition force that was assembled to restore Kuwait’s national integrity corresponds to the ‘collective defence’ of Kuwait.  The Second Gulf War was both legally and morally legitimate, it was conducted to liberate an occupied nation, but it was not a Cosmopolitan War.

The war was not based on the restoration or enforcement of human rights; it was based on the principles of state sovereignty and the interests of the international community.  At the heart of the conflict lay the question of access to oil and the balance of power in the Middle East, a cosmopolitan war would not have allowed the repression of the Kurds following Saddam Hussein’s defeat.  If this war had been fought on cosmopolitan principles the Corpus Belli would have been different, it would not have allowed Saddam’s continuing rule, or the restoration of the ‘al Sabah’ (Milton-Edwards, 2003: 89) monarchy to its previous role as the overlords of Kuwait.

An Example of a Cosmopolitan War; NATO in Kosovo:

This analysis of the Kosovo War will provide an example of a conflict fought along the prescriptions of moral cosmopolitanism, a war fought for the protection of Human Rights, and their enforcement as a norm of international relations.  Kosovo provides a template for comparison between its institutionalised multilateral approach to humanitarian war fighting, and the more aggressive pragmatic approach argued for in this essay.

The NATO campaign in Kosovo was primarily the result of the enduring legacy of the Yugoslav wars of succession.  Within the minds of European and North American political leaders was the spectre of another bloodbath in the Balkans, coupled with a legacy of guilt for allowing the earlier brutal conflict to continue under their noses.  ‘It was the sense of guilt over the long agonies of the siege of Sarajevo, together with the speedy ending of the war once the West did intervene, which so powerfully fuelled the resolve to stop its repetition.’  (Hastings 2001)

The role of NATO in the post-cold war landscape of European defence was also in question, Bill Clinton stated in his speech to the American people on the eve of war that “Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose,”…Failing to act, he added, “would discredit NATO, the cornerstone on which our security has rested for fifty years now.”  (Cited in Klare, 1999)  Kosovo offered the alliance the opportunity to extend its remit, and reaffirm the role of the United States at the heart of European defence; highlighting European military inadequacies in technology and logistics.

As Brendan Simms states in the opening paragraph of his book ‘Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia’ ‘Between April 1992 and October 1995 a European country was destroyed.  Tens of thousands of its inhabitants were murdered.  More than a million were expelled, deported, or fled in fear of their lives.  An unknown number were raped, humiliated, and traumatized.  Bosnians of all ethnic origins – Muslim, Serb, and Croat – both suffered and inflicted suffering as the war dragged on.’  (Simms, 2002: XV)  It is the inaction that accompanied European responses to this conflict that led to a change in foreign policy objectives within European governments, brought about by the success of left of centre political parties during the mid-1990s.  ‘It is unquestionably the case that British foreign policy changed significantly when Labour replaced the Conservatives.  Up to that point British policy…had been steadily anti-interventionist.  If this had not been so, it is likely that there would have been a military intervention in Bosnia, or at least a raising of the arms embargo, long before the summer of 1995.  No one can doubt that Tony Blair was the leading interventionist in regard to Kosovo…Blair was even making preparations to commit 50,000 British soldiers to a land invasion, which would probably have gone ahead if Milosevic had not capitulated.  ’  (Hastings 2001) This change led to cohesion of thought on what Mary Kaldor calls ‘New Wars’ or humanitarian intervention between Europe and the United States.

When conflict in the Balkans flared up again during the summer of 1998 in the province of Kosovo, between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the forces of the Federal Yugoslav Republic (FYR), over the status of the province the international community reacted with universal condemnation of the tactics reportedly being used by Serbian forces against the Albanian secessionists.  Several attempts were made during that summer which concluded with the agreement to a cease-fire and further talks.  Unarmed monitors from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were sent into Kosovo to monitor the cease-fire and ensure its implementation.

However, during the early months of 1999 it became increasingly clear that Serbia was not prepared to reach a compromise with the KLA and that further military action was being planned.  ‘On January 16th 1999 the bodies of forty five ethnic Albanians were discovered [by KLA fighters] just outside the village of Racak…The Racak villagers had been murdered by Serbs.  The victims, including three women and a child, had been mutilated.  One man, of about sixty-five had been decapitated’ (Gilbert, 1999: 897) The American head of the OSCE monitoring team in Kosovo William Walker, was seen on television sets across the world visiting the scene of the massacre, he was visibly shaken and commented when asked about the perpetrators of the crime that ‘I do not hesitate to accuse the government security forces.’  (Gilbert, 1999: 897)  Following failed peace talks at Rambouilliet outside Paris between representatives of the KLA and the Yugoslav government, and with the pace of population expulsion in the region increasing NATO decided to act.  On March 24th 1999, Operation Deliberate Force began with air strikes against military targets throughout Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo was a cosmopolitan war because NATO’s actions were not wholly premised on state interests, which Carl Von Clausewitz believed were the only rational reasons for such action, but in response to a humanitarian crisis evolving in the Balkans and a belief that genocide as witnessed in Bosnia and Rwanda earlier in the decade was not going to be allowed to occur again.  It was in many ways the rediscovery of George Bush (Snr.) ‘New World Order’ which had stood at the beginning of that decade and been lost in the ethnic and civil conflicts that had been permitted to continue across the world since.  President Clinton stated at the time that the purpose of the war was ‘to stop the repression by the Serbs of the Kosovar Albanians’ (Gilbert, 1999: 905).

Ulrich Beck argues that from the legal position of non- interference in the ‘internal affairs’ of states ‘NATO’s response to Kosovo is a clear breach of international law’.  (Beck 2000: 82)  However, he argues that the attempts to stop the genocide expose the tension between human rights and national sovereignty.  Further arguing that Kosovo was an example that ‘The principle that international law proceeds human rights which held during the (nation state) first age of modernity is being replaced by the principle of the (world society) second age of modernity, that human rights precedes international law.’  (Beck 2000: 83)

The Kosovo War was a cosmopolitan war fought on the basis that the violations of human rights being carried out by the Serbian government were illegitimate, it was the first multi-national humanitarian assistance force in history to ignore the basic principle of realist world politics that of the supremacy of sovereign integrity, the right for states to act as they pleased within their borders.  There was no Security Council resolution, and no legal grounding whatsoever for the action taken by NATO, it was a unilateral action, in response to a humanitarian crisis brought about by Serbian state policy.  Beck argues that ‘International law does admittedly contain rules concerning the international use of violence, and it also distinguishes between what is permitted and what is forbidden.  But it does so in an inadequate way because what is not examined is whether the state authorities themselves have a legitimate existence, or to be more precise whether they satisfy the Human Rights Charter and the demands arising from it.’  (Beck 2000: 82)

Michael Walzer argues in ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ that  ‘Against the enslavement or massacre of political opponents, national minorities, and religious sects, there may well be no help unless help comes from outside…when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of self-determination might apply.’  (Walzer, 2000: 101)  It is for these reasons that Kosovo was a cosmopolitan war, it was the first time that the sovereignty of the individual was held with higher regard by the international community than that of the state, and it deemed that the actions of this state had de-legitimised its rights to claim sovereign power over the Kosovar Albanians.

However, Operation Deliberate Force failed to achieve its prime objective, to prevent the ethnic cleansing and mass deportation of the civilian population.  NATO’s campaign failed here because of the structure of its military forces and the vulnerability of the political alliance.  NATO was not ready to commit ground forces to the operation, and through strategic incompetence and political spin made this intention publicly known, ‘Washington…remains determined not to send in ground troops to fight a war.’  (BBC News 17/05/1999)  As Clausewitz states ‘the political object, as the original motive of the war, will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force and also the amount of effort made.’  (Clausewitz, 1997: 13)  The political object of the Kosovo war was confused from the start, with parts of the alliance, Britain most notably, pushing for a complete military solution, through a ground invasion of Kosovo.  While others, the Americans and French calling for a limited air campaign followed by a peacekeeping force after a Serb withdrawal.  In this confusion, NATO grossly overestimated the impact of demonstration bombing on Milosevic’s resilience, lengthening the war, and falling to stop the ethnic cleansing.

The problem with Kosovo as a cosmopolitan war is that despite being morally right, the preservation of human rights, the refusal to accept the doctrine of sovereign integrity and the principle this supports of non-intervention.  The alliance that undertook the conflict did not agree how much ‘effort’ (Clausewitz, 1997: 13) was to be put to this end.  ‘…NATO did not drop food supplies for the thousands of Kosovars displaced from their homes…  [Because of]…the fear of flying below 15,000 ft which would have put its pilots at risk…instead it leased the operation to a consortium of NGOs.’  (Coker, 2003: 128)  Tony Blair said on April 21st 1999 that ‘We should have no hesitation and every resolve to see the thing through to the end.’  (Gilbert, 1999: 907)  NATO did, but in a way that allowed Milosevic to continue his reign of terror for a further three months, during which an accelerated programme of ethnic cleansing in the province caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to pour into Macedonia; adding a new humanitarian crisis to the one already present in Kosovo.


This essay has provided an overview to the conditions under which military action has been defined as legitimate and provided a context to the concept of prescriptive war, and the origins of legal prescriptions of war within just war theory.  The purpose of this essay has been to present an argument in favour of cosmopolitan justifications of war on human rights grounds as equally legitimate as those of just war.

We have seen that a just war can be fought without it being a cosmopolitan war.  The Second Gulf War was fought in order to re-establish the sovereignty of Kuwait and not for humanitarian or democratic principles, as Kuwait is and remains an absolute monarchy.  In the months following the war, the allied forces ignored the brutal suppression of a Shi’ite rebellion in the south of Iraq and an exodus of Kurds in the north.  Intervention in either of these two events would have represented a cosmopolitan action, however as the war was essentially one of traditional state interest, concerned with oil, and power in the Middle East it was just but not cosmopolitan.  Kosovo was a cosmopolitan war; it was premised on the spectre of genocide and fought to prevent a humanitarian crisis.  However NATO did not stop Milosevic it only hindered him, ten thousand Kosovar Albanians died as a result of ethnic cleansing after the onset of the war

The prescriptive conditions of legal warfare within the United Nations system have become restrictive against the endeavour of enforcing the right of the individual to physical security and freedom.  The obsessive concentration on legality and multilateralism has led to an obstruction on the morality of action or inaction within international politics.  This has left only extra judicial means of enforcing cosmopolitan norms, such as in Kosovo, which are rare examples of liberal democracies having the courage of their convictions to stand up for the norms of western civilisation. 


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