February 26, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

What's wrong with self-defense?

Beware what you wish for, so the saying goes, you might just get it. A case in point is the widespread desire to reform the United Nations. Unless we are careful, the reform movement might blow up in our faces -- and create more problems next time the United States wants to deploy its troops abroad.

It is just about a year now since the United States found itself at loggerheads in the U.N. Security Council with the French, the Russians, the Germans and others who opposed the military action against Iraq. From a diplomatic standpoint, the negotiations were an absolute disaster. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin double-crossed Secretary of State Colin Powell royally, and, in the end, much bad publicity and ill feeling was generated.

The fact is that the United States and its allies could go ahead with the invasion of Iraq, based on Security Council Resolution 1441. The fact is also that we could have gone ahead without asking for U.N. permission at all.

Now, a lot of people don't like that possibility at all. As a consequence, the Russian government has now come up with a proposal to tie down the U.S. military and limit American options. In a speech two weeks ago at the 40th Munich Conference on Security Policy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a comment that was drowned out by the coverage of Russia's threat to leave the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, saw fit to make this startling proposal:

""We all understand that one of the core issues in modern international affairs is that of admissibility of a unilateral use of force, undertaken by a State or a group of States without relevant U.N. Security Council mandate, first of all, to fight international terrorism.

"I am convinced that the Russian-NATO partnership should foster such an environment in international relations, where the use of force among other things, for combating terrorism, would exclusively proceed within the realm of international law. It is wrong to fight terrorism with illegal techniques, and it is next to impossible." Illegal techniques? The Russians would know a thing or two about those.

Now, Mr. Ivanov was part of the sweeping house cleaning by Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday when he fired his entire government. But that is not likely to change the substance of Russian foreign policy towards the United Nations and the United States. Mr. Ivanov may in fact well be back before long.

Other countries are also concerned about constraining American power. Throughout the debate over Iraq last year, the demand for U.N. approval of American actions was constantly heard from Europeans. France and Germany took it upon themselves to stop the United State in the Security Council, an episode that cut so deep that David Frum and Richard Perle in their new book "An End to Evil" suggest we stop treating France as an ally, but possibly see it as an enemy.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his speech before the United National General Assembly last September, was extremely critical of the American military action. The logic of preemptive or unilateral action, he said, "represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last fifty-eight years."

But international law permits nations to act in self-defense, and this is what the United States did in Iraq (after trying a decade of U.N. sanctions and containment). According to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, "Nothing in the present charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in an armed attack against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and stability."

The reality is that in the 21st century terrorists or states that wish to challenge American power increasingly seek weapons of mass destruction to achieve their political objectives. Customary international law allows for this preventive or preemptive action as "anticipatory self-defense."

If Mr. Ivanov's words about "the admissibility of unilateral action" and "illegal techniques" can be taken seriously -- and I believe they should because this idea has wide resonance abroad -- we may see a movement towards reform of the U.N. Charter Article 51 in a direction that would be very detrimental to the security of the United States. Mr. Annan has recently appointed an Eminent Person's panel to look into U.N. reform. The U.S. government needs to draw a line in the sand against any threats to our ability to fight the war against terrorism.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times