The U.N. is finally suffering from the imposture of its constitution. When it was formed in 1945 it needed two things, without which nothing at all could be done in creating an institution with political authority. It had to have the Soviet Union and the United States as members, participating with equal authority. Thus both powers got the veto. It was then given to the other three victorious powers: China, Britain and France.
That was 58 years ago, and nobody plausibly asks that continued fruits of victory should go on any longer. Their contributions to victory in 1945 were made before 80 percent of the world's population was born. On Monday, the French foreign minister pledged quite directly to veto any resolution that could be interpreted as authorizing the use of military force in Iraq any time before the next French grape harvest. Supplementary vetoes by Russia or China would be redundant.
What will matter is that their veto power was one more Damocles' sword hanging over deliberations that President Bush made the mistake of getting into. The burden of the existing constitution of the United Nations made for the insuperable obstacle, toward which the irresistible force was headed. The question then became a simple political one: Did the U.N. have the strength to deter the United States?
Since the answer to that is plainly No, then we explore deductions. The primary one of these is that the U.N. has forever lost its hypothetical authority. De facto, it was lost when we proceeded against Kosovo in 1999 without authority. De jure, we are about to lose it because unlike in 1999, when we simply did it and nobody drew down a veto, this time the veto will be there and we'll do it anyway. An analogy is President Andrew Jackson's challenge of 1830: "John Marshall has made his decision. Let him now enforce it if he can." Somebody had to prevail, the executive or the judiciary.
The United Nations has an opportunity to reform itself, surrendering the veto, but pride will keep veto-holding powers from simply giving it up. What will follow is castration of the Security Council, whose swaggering permanent members will have the voices of eunuchs. Perhaps another international body will form, one which will devote itself exclusively to service functions. It would be more economical if the existing agency simply did away with the Security Council, allowing a continued use of the material facilities created in the half century.
A second implied covenant that will be leaving town has to do with nuclear weapons. Professor Perry Anderson of UCLA wrote a fine essay for the London Review of Books called "Casuistries of Peace and War." He persuasively holds that we will have to jettison our cozy assumption that anti-proliferation is going to work or that we can make it work. We've never succeeded in aborting a nuclear program except in South Africa, and there the abortion was self-induced.
There is a bright side to the matter, the theory long maintained by professor Michael Walzer of Columbia to the effect that more nuclear powers can very likely mean less likelihood that nuclear power will be used. "In a conventional world, one is uncertain about surviving or being annihilated. In a nuclear world, one is uncertain about surviving or being annihilated." When in 1999 Pakistan detonated a nuclear bomb in response to India's bomb, what in fact happened was that both nations, tightening their belts, reduced their demands.
For the Walzer doctrine to work in Southeast Asia would require offsetting nuclear power in South Korea and Japan. Pending such precautionary steps, deterrence would need to be effected by the United States. What is breath-catching is that we may indeed be orienting our policies not to removing the North Korean bomb, but to neutralizing it. Those are fresh charters for the world of 2003.