The Europeans have already hinted that if sanctions are blocked at the UN, they will impose their own. They will also try to get others to join them, rather as America has orchestrated the Proliferation Security Initiative, an informal posse of countries prepared to take tough action to block shipments of illicit goods and materials around the world related to weapons of mass destruction.The banal reason for the Europeans' willingness to shortcut the UN system if it has to, is of course the problem with the potential Russian or - more likely - Chinese vetos. Ad hoc'ery evidently happens all the time in the murky worlds of politics: informal alliances, trade-offs and dealmaking, pre-meeting coordination, pressures and promises is what diplomacy is made of. But this case is interesting for its lesson about realpolitik and righteousness.
The 2002 National Security Strategy with its emphasis on preemption and the following year's dramatic confrontations over Iraq inside the UN and outside in the regular stream of international politics left many Europeans very worried that the US had cut down on its doze of multilateralism, preferring instead a shot of unilateralism. Even if the Americans are always the scapegoats only two scenarios are more upsetting to the NATO allies: the vision of the US retracting in isolationalism or, the opposite, of it going it alone.
Thus, during the Iraq debate and after much energy was spent worrying to which degree the US would abandon the UN and other common structures of concertation and decision. Especially the French worried about ad hoc - cherry picked coalitions of the willing - becoming the order of the day, not just because the US would then be able to orchestrate more - or as in the case of Iraq - less able and representatively legitimate background choirs for any given, predecided course of action. But also, of course, their precious SC veto losing its shine.
Then in 2004 came along the PSI, which to begin with was positioned in somewhat uncertain legal waters - the test case for the new kind of ad hoc, act-now-squabble-later framekworks which the Europeans had worried about (more about the PSI here in a 2004 Strategic Insights piece, which aptly shows the legal limbo). And France was part of the 11 original countries, including the rest of the G7 except Canada (others, including Denmark and Norway have joined since). Even if the PSI was subsequently sanctioned by the UN, and it thus at least in hindsight seems as a less dramatic change than it probably was, it is still interesting to see that the Iran issue is now leading the Europeans down that same path, of bypassing the UN when it comes to action.
Of course there are some caveats: 1) it is not that new: Kosovo was the big thing in this regard, even if the Europeans were also probably shamed into action for not doing anything earlier and under the impression that the Americans would now. 2) The whole European angle on the Iran situation, through the initiatives of the E3 (UK, France, Germany) has to a large extent been driven from the beginning by a sense of urgency that they might get to a solution before the US - presumably - entered the fray with less elegance.
An old truism in Danish foreign policy says that it is easier to be a Danish foreign minister when the mood on a given issue is aligned at the UN, in the EU and in NATO (i.e. the US). Squaring a small country's responsibilities and allegiances with such strong forces when they are heading in different directions is not the least easy. Which is why the smaller alliance countries - at least those who have any kind of active foreign policy tradition, be it in security or development - are both those who are usually the most pro-multilateralism and those who stand to lose the most if ad hoc'ery gets to be the order of the day.
But the Iran situation has already demonstrated what should have been clear all along for the small EU states about the CFSP - the Common Foreign and Security Policy - project. The formation of the E3, as proposed indirectly before 9/11 by the UK (via Mandelson) is itself an ad hoc. While it is definitely true that common EU foreign policy stances cannot be had without the consent of the E3, their going it alone without the veneers of an EU emissary goes a long way to show the difference between lofty words and the necessities of realpolitik. Not that surprising of course. But it is a healthy reminder for all of those who insistently and intuitively always start their analyses about international politics with calls for formal insitutionalizations and - oh, the ring of it - international law.
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The latter like in this Le Monde Diplo piece which has this curiously 70's university debate ring to it:
What really needs to be questioned is power itself as a criterion for appointing leading members. The history of democracy has been a constant struggle against the usurpation of power by the richest and strongest. The proposed changes will leave the Security Council as the same aristocratic body at odds with the egalitarian essence of democracy. The proposal to democratise the council is a sham.The article goes on to sketch out a new UN system, ending up with a conclusion that is marvelously in tune with Raymond Aron's diagnosis of Marxism as a secular religion. Faith in the direction of historical progress can move mountains. Of newspaper, at least.
These proposals are made for discussion, but there are imperatives behind them: the need for democracy (by the elimination of all prerogatives that benefit only a few states), for law (by strengthening the competence of the general assemblies) and justice (by the mandatory nature of international law). These cannot be ignored for much longer.