National Security Strategy Returns Broad War Powers to U.N.

By Satyam Khanna

Yesterday, Yglesias outlined the rules-based system illustrated by the National Security Strategy. I think it’s worth diving into how exactly Obama has done this. Most interesting is how he has aligned the use of force doctrine with international institutions. Here’s Bush:

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. … the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather.

And Obama:

When force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, and we will seek broad international support, working with such institutions as NATO and the U.N. Security Council. The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force. Doing so strengthens those who act in line with international standards, while isolating and weakening those who do not.

Under the U.N., generally, the only means in which a country can use force is in self-defense. You can see that self-defense is quite limited, as it must be “necessary” and after an “armed attack.” The UN Security Council, on the other hand, is given power to basically do whatever it wants; it can fight “threats to the peace,” however broad that may be (i.e., it can launch preventive wars, if it has the votes).

Bush’s “gathering threats” doctrine basically told the U.N. Security Council, “I want your broad and unlimited power to conduct warfare, even if I am not entitled to it under international law.” Left unanswered was why every other country in the world couldn’t follow suit, launching attacks against whomever they wanted “even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.” International anarchy, really.

Obama’s NSS gives that power back to the U.N. Security Council. By preserving the right of self defense but adding the big caveat that the U.S. will “adhere to standards that govern the use of force,” U.S. is returning to the widely held view that countries can only use force in immediate self defense, and that anything more must be authorized by the procedures of international institutions.

This is a major, major victory for international stability, because, at least in theory, other rogue states can no longer look to the U.S.’s example to launch preventive war; they can only use unilateral force when it is absolutely, immediately necessary. The potential ripple effect of this NSS — a more stable, predictable system governing how and when nations can conduct warfare — is something to be proud of.

Update: As Matt notes, none of this is black and white. The use of drone attacks, for instance, raises some pretty serious questions about the right of self-defense in international law.