Influence of International Organizations

International Organization Negotiations & Governance

Good morning. The principal big-picture question for us today is how we protect people worldwide from the continuing slaughter of war. Can international organizations help to prevent war? An appalling amount of blood has been spilled over the course of history. War has caused millions of people to be killed. Innocent people and others engaged in fighting are gone. Can this carnage be slowed down, or even stopped, through the involvement of international organizations? Diplomacy is a wonderful concept and leaders rely on the use of the word — but why has diplomacy failed in so many instances? We will delve into this issue with reference to the Gulf War and the UN’s power in conjunction with America’s power.

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What causes war? In the past most wars have been fought over land, territory, resources like oil or gold. These are tangible reasons for fighting. A nation sees that there are great resources to be gained in a neighboring state so the first nation becomes belligerent and turns plowshares into swords — using an old and familiar phrase.

Case Study — IRAQ

Meanwhile, let’s focus our attention on what happened in the Middle East following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. What did Saddam want — more territory? Certainly his naked aggression was based on annexing the territory of an oil-rich nation. It was a power grab done with stunning quickness. Saddam wanted to be seen as a power broker in the Middle East rather than just another second-rate country; he wanted to change the balance of power in the Middle East. The world watched in disbelief and the United Nations slapped serious economic sanctions against Iraq and passed Resolution #678 — meaning that “all means necessary” could be used to move Iraq out of Kuwait.

The Realist Cut

The Realist Cut in the matter of Iraq invading Kuwait includes the notion that international organizations either serve the interests of great powers or a bypassed in favor of unilateral action — if a consensus cannot be reached a great power can simply bypass international organizations. In the case of Iraq, many observers in the media thought Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the folly of a madman. But Saddam really was smart from a devious criminal’s standpoint: He knew Europe, the U.S., and other Western nations depend on oil, so if he had more oil resources, he could hold the West hostage to his manipulation of oil prices. The realist in this situation knew the UN resolution would make it legal and acceptable for the United States to go in and chase Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.

Would the U.S. have gone into Kuwait to flush Iraqi armies out without the UN? Absolutely. But having an international organization like the UN sanction the war against Iraq was a huge boost in legitimacy for America’s interests in protecting Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both allies in an anti-West region. A realist could see that the whole approach to confronting Iraq’s aggression was in the hands of the United States.

Certainly, the U.S. manipulated the vote in the UN to serve America’s interests, and it was obvious the UN had no military muscle to put to use in the Kuwait-Iraq crisis. The salient issue for a realist position was that the U.S. had a strategic purpose for committing tens of thousands of troops and massive resources — the largest deployment of military force since World War II — to oust Iraq from Kuwait. And in the process Saddam was prevented from tilting the balance of power in the Middle East. But again, looking at the situation from a realist perspective, the use of the UN was just “window dressing” for the U.S. actions.

The Liberal Cut

There are three reasons why the United Nations’ participation in the Gulf War against Saddam’s regime was effective, according to the liberal perspective vis-a-vis hindsight. The Cold War ended and there was a supposedly a new world order. That new order would bring the rule of law to the forefront and the rule of violent upheaval and heavy-handed aggression would be pushed to the back of the bus, so to speak. It didn’t work out that way though. The first reason involves the fact that the UN Security Council’s permanent members (China, the UK, the U.S., Russia and France) participated in the decision to confront Iraq and remove Iraq from Kuwait. That, from a liberal perspective, showed a strong framework for collective security in the Middle East. Nations that rarely agree on much actually got together in the Security Council, and, seeing the danger Saddam’s move meant, presented a united front against Iraq’s attempt to impact the balance of power in the Middle East.

The second reason why the UN’s involvement was pivotal was that the Security Council’s vote served to be a pragmatic moment of diplomacy, uniting the world’s biggest powers in a single act to stop aggression. Without the UN’s sanctions against Iraq, including a kind of embargo preventing Iraq from profiting from the sale of its oil, the conflict might have dragged on for months. Also, the embargo prevented Iraq from receiving supplies and resources from other countries. Moreover, the UN was instrumental in negotiating the release of Western hostages. Hence, what happened was an empowering of the UN. Ironically, George H.W. Bush’s son George W. Bush would later appoint an ambassador to the UN (John Bolton) who was openly and frequently hostile to the goals of the United Nations.

The third reason the Security Council’s vote was helpful from the liberal perspective is that it helped “shield the leadership of the permanent members from internal dispute.” The fact that France, which had enormous economic investments in Iraq, went along with the vote, for example, shows the solidarity of the permanent members against tyranny and aggression in the name of power and greed. Also, the Russia had huge interests in Iraq; and in fact Iraq owed Russia billions of dollars, so voting to allow military involvement against Iraq was impressive on the part of the Russians. Even the United States had some contentiousness before voting with the Security Council; the vote in the U.S. Senate was 52-47 in favor of the UN resolution. This coming together of disparate nations with conflicting interests also meant that the cost of removing Iraq from Kuwait would be shared by other nations (Germany and Japan, were two nations that kicked in) and so the U.S. wasn’t stuck with the whole bill.

The Marxist Cut

Meanwhile from a Marxist viewpoint, world capitalism was at the center of the issue. In the colonial period, Iraq was a pawn of European states because of its oil reserves. The Marxist position is that international organizations (i.e., the UN) are there to promote, foster, and legitimize the aggressive policies of the leading capitalist states — including of course the United States. Marxists see that the UN-authorized embargo and war authorization was an intervention that not only prevented Iraq from taking over Kuwait; it greatly benefited the United States.

In hindsight the boundaries of Iraq and other Middle Eastern states were drawn by colonial powers (France and England in particular), so there are historical reasons why intervention by Western states (even in the face of Saddam’s aggression) is clouded by colonialism and certain tensions left over from past injustices against Iraq’s sovereignty. Moreover, there are several interesting and even disturbing precedents that were established by the UN authorization of the use of military power.

One, this was the first collective action by an international organization (post-Cold War) to provide liberation for a country that was not democratic. Unfairness was the rule of the day in Kuwaiti’s working society; 80% of workers were non-Kuwaiti and they were on the lower end of the social totem pole as well. Two, never before had there been an arrangement in which the country being liberated (Kuwait) paid for two-thirds of the cost of the military support (provided in this case by the U.S.). And three, Resolution #678 went well past just authorizing war against Iraq; it also authorized a “safe-haven” for the Kurdish culture in northern Iraq. Marxist theory clearly highlights not just the resolutions and the UN’s positive involvement; it points to the “follow the money” compass which points a finger at the United States and at U.S. oil companies.


The war that pushed Saddam’s regime back to Baghdad allowed Kuwait to continue as a sovereign nation unimpeded by Iraq’s aggression. And the legal justification for that was given by the United Nations although the bulk of the dirty work was conducted by the United States. The bottom line in this case study is a clear understanding of how an international organization can play a powerful role in helping to resolve regional conflicts. But there is always more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye, and this presentation has taken you behind those scenes.

Works Cited

Security. Case Study 1: Iraq

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