Two dangers constantly threaten the world: order and disorder. Paul Valéry An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come. Victor Hugo True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Henceforth, our country should be the universe. Flora Tristan *

Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : THE UN AND WORLD GOVERNANCE


The Collective-security Problem



Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 7 January 2009 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español .

Let us start with the third question, which we only touched upon above. For many, the UN embodies the success of a long-standing dream: to replace a dubious—and dangerous in the end—system of balances by a lasting “collective security” regime capable of bringing peace. This dream was entertained by the Enlightenment philosophers, who wished to end, once and for all, the conflicts and schemes of unscrupulous leaders whose ambitions had nothing to do with their subjects’ wellbeing. [1] The idea of progress, freedom, and happiness too, is therefore rooted in the theoretical conception of collective security. It was at the instigation of a philosopher-head of state, Woodrow Wilson (he was professor of political philosophy at Princeton), that the concept became a reality with the League of Nations, then later at the instigation of another American, Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the UN would be founded.

What is collective security? It is simply the idea that any country’s attacking any other country is tantamount to its attacking all other countries, whose duty is to oppose the attack. The concept of collective security is a sort of social contract among states, whereas the system of balances is a mechanism that in itself, with a measure of laissez-faire, is supposed to prevent any state from increasing in power enough to be able to upset the status quo. The collective-security goal is stability and peace, while the system of balance of power is expected to maintain the status quo (especially that of the great powers), if need be by resorting to war—with limited objectives—in order to maintain the geopolitical balance.

Logically, the concept of collective security expresses the European feeling of the eighteenth century, when the idea of progress ruled and the concept of balance of power—which expressed the world view of the seventeenth century—seemed unsatisfactory to the most sagacious observers. The temporal embodiment of collective security, the UN, however, was born just at a time where faith in progress was being shattered by the unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II. In other words, in 1945 the world set up a system in which it had basically stopped believing, as if, with no real conviction that it would do so, it had wished to ease its conscience.

The structural configuration of the UN, its Security Council in particular, tends to support this statement. We should note that the founding of the UN coincided historically with loss of faith in “rationalistic”—the term commonly used by political experts—systems as embodied by the League of Nations and with the revival of the traditional realpolitik principles that had been implemented by the leaders of the great powers that came out of World War II, principles that were in fact dominant in postwar political-science university departments. For example, the strategy of containment that governed US policy through to 1991 was based on a traditional view of the correlation of forces. As a result, the United States, the USSR, and other permanent members of the Security Council practiced realistic politics while serving at the UN, whose raison d’être was precisely to put an end to such practices!

This allows us to say without being too far off base that the failings of the UN are not due, as is generally affirmed, to the fact that today’s world is no longer the world of 1945 and the UN has not been able to adapt, but rather that in 1945 the dice were already loaded and the UN’s fate was practically sealed. We could even add that the UN is perhaps better adapted in 2009 to the current context than to the context of the time when it was founded. Overpowered as it was by the great powers, the UN still and all succeeded in staking out an area of its own and sometimes even in sidestepping the impositions written into its origins. Nonetheless, even though it has adapted, it has seemed at times completely overwhelmed by events, as for example by the 2008 financial crisis, about which the UN has remained dead silent. It is also largely ignored by the Europeans, not to mention the Americans.

Let us return for a moment to collective security. Collective security, as it was perceived theoretically in the eighteenth century and applied in the twentieth, was founded on four principles that today seem anachronistic, even obsolete:
I. Preeminence of the state, a legitimate and rational player
II. Inviolability of state sovereignty
III. A narrow view of the concept of security
IV. A perception of international relations favoring the (geo)political dimension

These were nonetheless the principles governing the UN’s birth and are still those that constitute its raison d’être.

Let us briefly examine each of these propositions in light of our current context.

[1This idea is found among a good number of Enlightenment philosophers, such as Castel de Saint-Pierre, Rousseau, d’Holbach, and Kant, among many others. Discussions on “perpetual peace” were extremely popular throughout the entire eighteenth century, as were discussions about various “plans for peace,” for example the one proposed by Jeremy Bentham.

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