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Is the United States Credible as a Guarantor of International Peace and Security?

May 31, 2016

By Stephen Gowans

On, March 2, 2016 the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea, citing the DPRK’s:

• Nuclear test of January 6, 2016;
• Its satellite launch of February 7, 2016, which the Security Council said relied on ballistic missile technology which could be used as a nuclear weapons delivery system. (Is it possible to launch a satellite without ballistic missile technology?)

UN Security Council Resolution 2270, championed by the United States, was approved unanimously by all 15 Security Council members, both permanent, and non-permanent, including Venezuela and Angola.

There is nothing in international law that says:

• A country cannot have nuclear weapons. True, there exists a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it is only binding on the parties to it, not on those who declined to join it, (like Israel), or have, (as North Korea has done), withdrawn from it.
• There is nothing in international law that says a country cannot have ballistic missiles.
• There is nothing in international law that says a country cannot launch a satellite.

So, on what grounds has the Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea?

The Security Council defined the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery, as threats to international peace and security, and therefore branded North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch as grave concerns. The Security Council also determined that North Korea’s nuclear test posed a danger “to peace and stability in the region and beyond.”

Article 39 of the UN Charter authorizes the Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to peace” and to take appropriate measures to eclipse it.

North Korea objected, and for the following—I think, very compelling— reasons:

• The Security Council’s definition of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security makes no reference to violations of international law. All that North Korea has done wrong, it seems, is to have engaged in activities the Security Council doesn’t like, but which all of its permanent members have, themselves, engaged in.
• The resolution uniquely defines the DPRK’s nuclear test and satellite launch as threats to peace, but does not define the nuclear tests or satellite launches of its permanent members in the same way.

This naturally raises the question: Why is launching a satellite, developing ballistic missile technology, and nuclear weapons testing, threats when pursued by North Korea, but not when pursued by the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia—or any other country the Security Council chooses not to single out?

Let me suggest two answers.

#1. The first has to do with what the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson called nuclear Orientalism—the idea that we can live with nuclear weapons in the hands of the five permanent members of the Security Council, but proliferation to Third World countries is enormously dangerous. People in the Third World, according to this view, cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions.

The term Orientalism can be confusing, so let’s use another term—“us vs. them thinking.” That’s really what Gusterson means. In us versus them thinking, “they” are defined as the polar opposite of us. We’re rational, dispassionate, responsible, and adults. They’re irrational, lack impulse control, are irresponsible, and are children, requiring a guiding hand. We can be trusted with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. They cannot.

The Security Council engages in us vs. them thinking when it expresses great concern that Pyongyang is “diverting” resources to “the pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while DPRK citizens have great unmet needs.” But Gusterson points out that this argument—which was once used against Pakistan and India when they first acquired nuclear weapons— can be applied just as strongly to Western countries.

For example, the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars on its military, far in excess of what’s required for national defense, while two million US citizens live without shelter, and another 36 million live below the official poverty line. So why isn’t the Security Council expressing great concern that Washington is “diverting” resources to “the pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while US citizens have great unmet needs”?

#2. Another reason for uniquely declaring North Korea’s nuclear test and rockets as threats to international peace and security, but not those of the permanent members of the Security Council, is the wish to enforce a nuclear apartheid, the idea of limiting the means of self-defense through nuclear deterrence to a small elite of nations—the permanent members of the Security Council, and a key US military asset, Israel—which can then use their privileged positions as holders of the world’s most formidable weapons to threaten the security, independence and sovereignty of non-nuclear states.

We might like to think of the UN Charter as the best way to promote peace and stability in the world, but whatever its merits as a charter for peace, it is also an instrument for the domination of small countries by the largest and most powerful states. What’s to protect those small states which seek to chart a course of independent self-development outside the orbit of the world’s imperial powers from the depredations of the Security Council’s permanent members? Certainly not the UN Charter, since it accords the Security Council—the world’s largest powers—illimitable authority to penalize small states simply for engaging in activities it doesn’t like, including developing the means to defend themselves, and to launch their own satellites rather than having to depend on large powers to do so on their behalf, for a profit.

And does anyone seriously think that the United States—whose leaders worship the cult of Mars, and which has spread death and destruction from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and points in between—can credibly act as the primus inter pares member of a council authorized to preserve peace and international security?

As the political scientist Kenneth Waltz has argued controversially, but not without cogency, the greatest deterrent to war may be nuclear weapons. War against a nuclear armed opponent makes the cost of aggression too incalculable and too uncertain to pursue. Yet, it is precisely the only effective means of deterrence against conquest available to North Korea—a country incessantly threatened by the United States and Washington’s neo-colony South Korea, and soon by its former colonial master, Japan (if Washington has its way)—which the UN Security Council seeks to deny the DPRK.

Is it a concern for peace and international security that motivates the United States and its Security Council cohorts to penalize North Korea ? No. UN Security Council Resolution 2270 originates in a desire–particularly that of the United States–to dominate.

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