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David Miller: Collective Security

David Miller Online

Collective Security: Is There Such a Thing?

As the debate continues over whether a US led attack on Iraq is in some way justified, various people have started making reference to the need to maintain a system of collective security. Some have even used the pre-World War Two League of Nations as an example of what can happen when the system breaks down. The most recent person of note to make this reference was Donald Rumsfeld, a man who has never made any secret of his desire to use the military in working through American foreign policy. Mr. Rumsfeld was once again explaining the US’ position for attacking Iraq and eloquently reminded his audience that collective security must be maintain and the League of Nations failed as a result. It was a well-spoken argument at least.

The problem when making references to collective security is that as a practical tool for maintaining peace it is flawed. In fact it is almost a myth. It is a nice sounding term that has those seeking to prevent conflict rushing to use it but as with the 1930’s, it does not work. It does not work because once the most powerful of nations step outside of its framework then it becomes redundant. Its survival depends on the remainder of those states still inside forming a powerful enough coalition to deter any military adventurism.

Once Germany left the League of Nations in the 1930’s those who remained had neither the military power nor the will to act against once the Germans embarked on their wars of conquest. Hence the League of Nations was sent into its death throes. Now, in the 21st Century, the United States is threatening to step outside of the United Nations and act unilaterally. If collective security is to work then those UN members who oppose Washington must form a coalition strong enough to deter the US from acting without the Security Council’s consent. If they cannot then the UN will not die but it will certainly be rendered powerless if not irrelevant.

What made Mr. Rumsfeld’s argument so clever was that he conveniently overlooked the role the United States had in the creation of both of these world organisations. The United States, under Woodrow Wilson, set up the League of Nations in 1919 as a way of preventing another world war. Once established, the US Congress voted to remain outside its structure. Instead the whole enterprise became a predominantly European affair with two war-racked countries trying to control it and inevitably it failed.

The United States, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, set up the United Nations, in 1947. This time the US Congress voted to be part of the structure. This worked fine while the Cold War was in progress however now more countries are charting their own course and voicing their own opinions, the US is looking to step outside again. Time will tell what the consequences are this time.

If one is of the opinion that it is Iraq who is breaking the rules of the collective security system then what Mr. Rumsfeld’s case should be convincing. They will argue that the US is the country holding it together and ensuring its success. Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case. This is a case where all sides are prepared to step outside the structure to satisfy their own agendas and will readily accuse the other doing so instead. Either way if there is a collective security system then its days appear numbered and once again the cost could be war. Collective security does not work.


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