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Slouching towards the Cool War

Published on December 19, 2012        Author: 

This post is part of an editorial that will appear in the issue of EJIL (Vol. 23/4) that will be published tomorrow.

It was a feature of the Cold War that the Security Council was essentially immobilized in its principal functions under Chapter VII and at times Chapter VI. Since most conflicts were refracted through the dichotomous politics of the Super Powers and at times protagonists were little more than clients of the antagonists of the Cold War, both holding the veto, the Security Council was at best a place to hear canned ideological speeches before washing such down in one of NYC’s more salubrious eateries surrounding the Shoebox.

The year 1989 ushered in a different politics and a different paradigm. Suddenly, though far from perfect, the Security Council was no longer that dead letter of the past, with important initiatives carried out under its auspices and with its authority. The difference between Iraq I and Iraq II was telling: Iraq II was not a regress to the Cold War, a sign of failure and irrelevance. Iraq II was a functioning Security Council exercising its authority to say – at best or worst – a muted No.

The wars and bloodshed that trouble us most now are no longer the surrogate conflicts of the Cold War, internal or international. One is most concerned with dreadful and savage internal conflict, which can no longer with any credibility come under the gruesome legitimacy of ‘self-determination’, with its ‘hands off’ legal implication. Darfur in the past, and Syria – 25,000 senseless dead, 250,000 homeless and displaced and even larger numbers of external refugees – right now bracket a whole range of humanitarian catastrophes, mostly man made.

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has featured in these pages with some fanfare, but somehow has not translated into an operational duty of action on the body at the centre of such potentialities, the Security Council. There was a moment when one thought that the locus of R2P would shift to the regional – after all, the humanitarian action surrounding Kosovo was NATO driven – circumventing, with questionable legality, the Security Council, but at least lending it the legitimacy that comes from collective and deliberative process rather than from unilateral cowboyism. But recent events in the South China Sea, and the inability of ASEAN to produce even a common communiqué, are just one of the signs that we may be entering a Cool War. No, we do not find this or that super power facing each other with arsenals at the ready, and the talk is very different. And yet, from one point of tension and global threat to another, whether Africa, the Mid East (Syria, Iran), South East Asia, the Koreas, Japan and China, the Security Council or regional bodies seem to be regularly thwarted by veto, by talk of veto, or by some other lack of consensus. The rhetoric is typically non-Cold War, but the actions begin to evoke memories. The voice is Jacob’s, but the hands are Esau’s. And suddenly we are back to the usual suspects. The Cool War upon us. Not very cool.

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