The United Nations, peace and security: from collective security to the responsibility to protect by Ramesh Thakur
|Reviewed By:||Courtney B. Smith|
|Reviewed in:||International Affairs|
|Date accepted online:||10/04/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 83, Issue 06, Pages 1193-1234|
Book Reviews: International law and organization
The primary purpose of the United Nations is to promote international peace and security, an undertaking now more challenging and complex than at any other time in the organization's history. The reasons for this are as vast as the mandate of the organization itself, and effective solutions can remain elusive amid the conflicting interests of member states. Difficulties aside, the United Nations has achieved important successes, and even more could be accomplished if the broad expectations placed before the organization were more faithfully joined with the resources required to meet them. It is through this difficult terrain that Ramesh Thakur guides the reader in
It would be difficult to identify a more appropriate guide through this terrain than Thakur. The book is in part the 'dispassionate analysis' of a long-time scholar of UN studies, in part the 'intellectual reflections' of a member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and in part the 'personal memoir' of the principal writer of former Secretary General Kofi Annan's second report on UN reforms (pp. 20-21). These experiences result in an analysis that effectively combines constructive criticism of the organization's limitations with a deep normative commitment to the organization's potential. Furthermore, Thakur's 'personnel and professional identity at the intersections of West and East, North and South' enables him to be particularly effective in balancing the perspectives of the various member states and other players who have worked through the UN to design new security norms.
The goal of Thakur's book is not to provide yet another text that surveys the UN's many activities in regard to peace and security, but rather to share the story of how the concept of security has broadened and deepened through UN debate and to analyse the challenges and opportunities the UN has faced in putting its new conceptualizations of security into practice. The book's greatest contribution is in its introduction and conclusion where the narrative is organized around five strands: the evolving norm that positions multilateral forums as the appropriate venue for decisions to use force; the growing gap between legality and legitimacy in the use of force; the central role of the relationship between the United Nations and the United States in matters of security; the persistent divide between the developed and developing worlds; and the continued importance of the rule of law as the foundation of domestic and international society. These strands set the stage for Thakur's story, which is further enhanced by several recurring themes, including the disconnect between power and authority in international politics, the emergence and contestation of new international norms, and the varying expectations of what the UN is seen to be in the eyes of its member states.
As with any book of this scope, suggestions can be offered that would make Thakur's already strong analysis even more robust, and these deal more with organizational matters than conceptual content. The five strands have the potential to serve as an effective anchor for his entire analysis; however, to fully realize this they would need to be more systematically integrated into all of his substantive chapters. As it is, the strands surface at certain locations in the narrative, but their effective use in these instances makes their absence elsewhere more apparent. A perhaps related observation concerns how the various chapters are grouped together. It remains unclear why soft security perspectives are covered before more traditional hard security issues. Likewise, including the chapter on the responsibility to protect in his section on hard security is puzzling when it might be better positioned as part of his treatment of human security. Finally, the two case-study chapters on Kosovo and Iraq are valuable; however, their relevance to both hard and soft security suggests that they could be located in their own section. Other organizational issues include some abrupt transitions within and between chapters and a tendency at times to stray from the role of the UN in the narrative, both of which might cause confusion for readers less familiar with these developments.
These observations should in no way detract from the conclusion that Thakur's book is a useful, even essential, addition to the literature on the UN's role in promoting international peace and security. While this role continues to evolve, Thakur has provided his readers with a valuable and insightful conceptual map of the main challenges and opportunities the United Nations will face.