For the moment, the threat of nuclear war has mercifully abated, the jousting of superpowers has receded, and the world has more international machinery for keeping the peace than ever before. Yet ironically, not since the Second World War has violence been more widespread, and international institutions and regional coalitions less able to control it. Wars between sovereign states no longer account for most of the global crop of violence. Ethnic, religious, or other conflicts within national borders are now the typical scourges. The global arms trade, of which more than 80 percent emanates from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, feeds much of the mayhem.
We need to recall that existing global and regional organizations were not set up to deal with such situations. They were intended to prevent aggression between states, and to promote international harmony and prosperity. To deal with violence within national borders, multinational organizations have had to improvise, and for a variety of reasons sovereign states have been reluctant to systematize such activities.
The concept of national sovereignty remains far stronger in the political sphere than in any other area of international activity: financial, cultural, communications, environmental, or scientific. The idea of collective intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is, in the abstract at least, repellent to many governments. There is a good deal of confused thinking, indeed humbug, about this question. To cite only one example: the failure to act during the Rwanda genocide in 1994 is now universally deplored, but who would have supported the U.N. secretary general had he proposed strong action when the first warnings of the planned massacres were received, some four months before the genocide actually started? Such a proposal would almost certainly have been generally opposed as a violation of the sovereignty of a U.N. member (Rwanda was actually a member of the Security Council at the time), and therefore as a dangerous precedent. The strong opposition to Secretary General Kofi Annan's ideas about intervention in cases of gross violations of human rights makes one wonder, in spite of the after-the-fact criticism of the U.N. failure in Rwanda, what the world really learned from that catastrophe.
Intervention: A Last Resort
Intervention is obviously a last resort. Preventive diplomacy, good offices, and mediation normally run their course before an actual intervention is considered. No organization or government has a monopoly on such diplomacy. Political conditions and the preferences of those most concerned usually determine what agency or person is most likely to get results. Preventive diplomacy on a wide range of issues goes on all the time. Governments, diplomats, international officials, nongovernmental organizations, business interests, churches, politicians are all part of this ongoing effort. When it succeeds, little is heard of it. Nothing is less newsworthy than a crisis averted. Failure followed by violence or catastrophe, on the other hand, is inescapably news.
In the absence of the threat of overwhelming force, or of irresistible economic or...