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Richard Falk: The Geopolitical Right of Exception at the United Nations

The UN is a powerful organization, but the US and other big players ultimately make the rules.

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United Nations building in Manhattan.
Image from UN on Flickr.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

The notorious yet influential German jurist, Carl Schmitt, famously insisted that “a right of exception” was the core reality of national sovereignty. By this he meant that internal law could be put aside by “the sovereign,” inhering as the crux of the relationship between state and society. In this regard international law has no overriding claim of authority with respect to sovereign states, at least from the perspective of statist jurisprudence. This discretion to ignore or violate law is distinct from submission to law as a realistic adaptation by weak states to political realities or compliance undertaken voluntarily for pragmatic reasons of convenience and mutual benefit.

When the UN was established, it was configured to appeal both to realist minds who were eager to show that they had learned the lesson of Munich and to those architects of international cooperation who did not want the folly of the League of Nations, seen as a politically irrelevant sanctuary for utopians and dreamers to be repeated in this newly created organization. To achieve these ends the UN Charter vested only the UN Security Council with the power of decision (as distinct from recommendations), and limited its membership originally to nine states of which the five designated winners of World War II were given both permanent membership and, more importantly, a right of veto. In effect, the right of veto was a constitutional right of exception embedded in the UN Charter. It formulated the master procedural rule of the Charter as one that allowed permanent members of the Security Council to block any decision that was perceived to be sufficiently against their national interests or those of its friends. Just as Woodrow Wilson falsely misled the world with his pledge after World War I of “making the world safe for democracy” the UN was more effectively manipulated into the actuality of “making the world safe for geopolitics.”

The UN also committed itself to respect territorial sovereignty of its members, and… placed all forms of civil strife beyond its writ unless the Security Council agreed that there were present substantial threats to international peace and security.

In effect, the UN was set up on the basis that it would never be strong enough to challenge these five major states, and that its effectiveness would rest on two possibilities: sustaining the voluntary cooperation that had worked successfully during World War II to thwart European fascism and Japanese imperialism or cooperating on issues of secondary concern in the peace and security area on which the permanent members could agree and persuade enough non-permanent term members to lend support. As was discovered several decades ago, these permanent members could only agree on what to do in the Security Council on the rarest of occasions, and that decisions relating to secondary issues, although often useful, left the really dangerous conflicts beyond the reach of the UN. The UN also committed itself to respect territorial sovereignty of its members, and by virtue of Article 2(7) of the Charter, placed all forms of civil strife beyond its writ unless the Security Council agreed that there were present substantial threats to international peace and security.

This constitutional right of exception to some extent contradicts the basic imperative of the Organization: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” that is set forth in the Preamble to the Charter. To the extent that major wars have been avoided during the lifetime of the UN it is not due to the efforts of the Organization. It is rather a consequence of deterrence, and geopolitical self-restraint and prudence, which were greatly encouraged by the awareness that any war fought with nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe regardless of which side prevailed. Major wars were prevented by a reliance on traditional notions of balance, containment, and countervailing power fine-tuned for the realities of the nuclear age. These were realist instruments of statecraft associated with the European state system as adapted to the distinctive contemporary challenges. In the over 400 pages of his 2014 book, World Order, Henry Kissinger, the realist par excellence of this era, hardly mentions the UN, and accords it no significant role in shaping or even misshaping the “world order” in the twenty-first century. The UN is simply seen as a diplomatic sideshow. He says the present world order needs to be primarily concerned with incorporating the non-Western major states, especially China, in an enlarged conception of a state system that is based on European ideas. For this process of incorporation to occur smoothly it will be essential that Westphalian logic of statism be newly perceived as reflecting the values and worldview of these diverse civilizations, and no longer be understood as an integral aspect of the Western world domination project.

Although the UN is a disappointment when it comes to “war prevention” or the encouragement of a global rule of law, it has managed to achieve universality of membership. Unlike the League that failed to induce the United States to join and lost along the way several important members, the UN has neither expelled countries from its ranks nor have states withdrawn. The Organization has proved sufficiently useful as a site of diplomatic interaction and contestation that every government regardless of ideology or outlook finds it useful to participate in its activities. Even Israel, which consistently complains loudly about the flawed and biased character of the UN, still tries with all its diplomatic ingenuity to influence its various activities in directions consistent with its foreign policy.

What has received too little attention so far is what I would call “the geopolitical right of exception” that is quite distinct from the constitutional veto, but at least as pernicious from the perspective of enabling the UN to promote the human interest in its actions throughout the world. The geopolitical right of exception reflects the ability of one or more political actor in the world to promote or undermine policies that express its particular interest. In UN contexts the geopolitical right of exception allows a state to prevent the implementation of behavior that has been otherwise given formal approval. For instance, in the UN Human Rights Council there is no operative constitutional right of exception, and this allows certain steps to be taken on the basis of majority approval. Yet when it comes to implementation or enforcement, acting behind the scenes, threatening funding cuts and actions for and against a high official, the political will of the Organization is effectively resisted and controlled. For instance, Israel despite ignoring strongly backed UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with such matters as refugees, Jerusalem, and the separation wall, has been able to be defiant over the course of decades without experiencing any inter-governmental adverse consequences, and this is because it is protected by the United States exercise of its geopolitical right of exception on its behalf. The availability of such a geopolitical right is in direct proportion to the perceived hierarchy of hard and soft power in the world, which has meant that since World War II, the United States far more than any other political actor has enjoyed a geopolitical right of exception within the UN.

At present, it seems hopelessly out of touch to expect any moves by the American and other powerful governments to forego the benefits of the geopolitical right of veto.

The existence of this geopolitical right of exception undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN. It is integral to regimes of double standards, and cuts directly against the grain of global justice that seeks to treat equals as equally as possible. It also implicitly endorses backroom strong arm tactics and procedural manipulation, as well as modifies and distorts the rights and duties of membership in the UN.

Overcoming the geopolitical right of exception would require its repudiation by the United States, in particular, through a recognition that its exercise is incompatible with the search for a peaceful, just, sustainable, and more participatory form of world order. Because it is often exercised invisibly, this geopolitical right is also a vehicle of influence relied upon by private sector corporate and financial interests that are contrary to the global public interest. At present, it seems hopelessly out of touch to expect any moves by the American and other powerful governments to forego the benefits of the geopolitical right of veto. Because its exercise is neither claimed nor acknowledged, there can be no accountability, thus operating in a manner that is contrary to the democratic spirit. The constitutional veto has the benefit of discourse and debate as various political actors try to offer convincing reasons for casting a veto to block a Security Council decision. For this very reason the geopolitical right of exception is often a more desirable option than the constitutional right if the policy or position being promoted is unpopular with public opinion and other governments. The US Government struggles often behind the scenes at the UN to provide effective support for Israel in ways that get the job done without having to achieve such an unpopular result by a seemingly arbitrary reliance on its veto.

Unless a full-fledged world government were to be established, which seems slightly less likely than awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Vladimir Putin, there is no prospect of any renunciation of the geopolitical right of exception at the UN in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped for is a recognition of its existence and role, some sort of greater self-restraint exhibited in its exercise, and critical commentary by those who conceive of their political identity as that of “citizen pilgrims.”

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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