Phyllis Bennis’ Calling the Shots

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Chris Clement

Calling the Shots:
How Washington Dominates the United Nations
by Phyllis Bennis, foreword by Erskine Childers
Brooklyn, NY: Olive Branch Press [Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.], 1996), 272 pp. $17.95 paperback.

FOR THE PAST few months, inspections by the United Nations have been an important part of the Bush administration’s purported plans to dismantle Iraq’s possession of biological, chemical and/or nuclear weapons. Unable to gain immediate authorization from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the use of force, the Bush administration finally backed UNSC Resolution 1441 that mandated a new round of inspections in Iraq.

Critics who dismiss the UN as a tool of U.S. imperialism could point to how the Bush administration pushed through a resolution that makes war the most likely outcome of inspections. There is clear evidence that the Bush administration sees the inspections as a pretext for war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In fact, the very language of the resolution made it virtually impossible for Iraq to defend itself against the charges. (Even if inspectors find no evidence, Iraq must prove it has no weapons or intent to acquire them.) However, there are also indications from the UN inspection team, and strong statements from other members of the Security Council, of serious differences with the Bush administration in assessing Iraq’s offensive weapons capabilities, and in formulating an appropriate response if Iraq is actually a threat.

The ongoing diplomatic struggle and shifting events seem to fit at best unevenly with the charge that the UN is merely a means for accomplishing the Bush administration’s — and its predecessors’ — longstanding plan for launching full-scale war against Iraq.

There is perhaps no book as timely for addressing these contradictions as Phyllis Bennis’ Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates the United Nations. Bennis’ sophisticated explanation of the UN’s history and relationship with the United States is especially useful for dealing with two pressing questions:

1) Is the UN merely a tool occasionally used to sustain U.S. global domination?

2) Can it operate as an institution upholding international law that holds all countries (even the most powerful) accountable?

The Power of Five

The dominance of the Security Council and the veto power held by its five permanent members (USA, Britain, France, Russia, China) is already well-known. Calling the Shots provides incredibly detailed descriptions of how insistent and inflexible the five powers were in creating the UN’s internal structure.

Bennis shows that the founders of the UN never wanted the organization to have independent power and authority. At the founding conference in 1945, the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China were to be the real power behind the organization, and five permanent seats were established on the organization’s Security Council.(1)

Bennis’ account of the creation of the Security Council and the UN Charter reveals that the five powers — especially the United States and Soviet Union — had no intention of ever creating an organization where member states would have equal power in decision making.

The Charter made clear that the Security Council, rather than the General Assembly (where all member nations would have one seat and one vote), was vested with the authority to enforce decisions made by the UN.

The permanent seats on the Security Council were further strengthened by provisions for veto power. Any member of the permanent five (P5) could therefore override any proposed action by the rest of the Council — even if the proposal had majority approval.

Bennis does not adequately delve into the reasons why the United States and other powers were willing to distribute power exclusively among themselves while also creating an organization based on open, mass membership.

The U.S. vision of a post-World War II international order was torn between “multilateralism” — the enforcement of international security by collective means” and “unilateralism,” the use of violence as an instrument of foreign policy by a single country (the USA, of course).

The ideological underpinning of multilateralism is liberal internationalism, which  asserts that international security is best guaranteed when nation-states use intergovernmental institutions to mediate their differences, and collectively sanction any nation-state that breaks international law.

Liberal internationalists such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, believed that intergovernmental organizations could collectively enforce international law and prevent (or at least mitigate) the persistent use of force by individual nation-states, which had led to two world wars.

In contrast, a second school of thought — called “realism” (mainly by its proponents, naturally) — holds that war is the natural state of the international system. International security is elusive in a world where nation-states compete against one another to secure their borders and advance their interests.

Nation-states in this view cannot voluntarily forfeit their individual right to use violence to settle international disputes because they would thereby disadvantage themselves in the face of their adversaries. Just as Hull had believed multilateralism was necessary, “realists” from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger have asserted that the United States must act alone when the rest of the world apparently fails to see a threat to international security.

Even while differing on the appropriate methods for stabilizing a post-war order, both schools agreed that U.S. leadership was essential and its interests had to be primary.

Cold War Unilateralism

For most of the Cold War, U.S. policy favored unilateralism. Bennis once again becomes useful for explaining this preference: After its founding, the UN (including the Security Council) would actually have very little relevance in enforcing international security.

Both dominant powers, Washington and Moscow, feared that a powerful Security Council capable of passing resolutions and enforcing them by majority vote could pose a threat to their respective geostrategic interests.

As the Cold War intensified, Bennis notes that the Security Council was seen by both superpowers as futile and irrelevant because each had the power to veto initiatives taken by others. (The sole exception was when the United States took advantage of Soviet absence from a Security Council meeting and passed a resolution authorizing military force against the North in the Korean War.)

The idea of multilateral enforcement under the UN gave way to a straightforward U.S.-Soviet power struggle as each claimed the right to act on its own and pursuant to its own interests.

Trashing the Third World

The United States, as Bennis demonstrates, further turned towards unilateralism when newly independent nations and other Third World countries joined the UN. The rapidly changing composition of the UN General Assembly during the 1960s and 1970s led to new priorities, often at odds with U.S. global economic and geostrategic interests.

The General Assembly became a space for leaders of the Third World to speak out against global inequalities that privileged former colonial powers and the United States. The new direction of the UN peaked with the creation of the New International Economic Order (NEIO), a call for global economic and social justice that would confront existing inequalities in the international system.

Several agencies and programs, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), were established so that Third World countries could collectively address the need for employment, education, food production, etc.

The United States responded to these trends with outright hostility. The more vocal Third World countries became in the UN, the more Washington chose to withdraw from the organization.

When the General Assembly sought measures against apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s aggression in Lebanon, U.S. strategy was to use the Security Council to make sure that no collective action would be taken against two important geostrategic allies.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador at the time, boasted years later of his great success in making the UN powerless and irrelevant. The General Assembly repeatedly reproached U.S. acts of aggression, such as invading of Grenada and mining Nicaragua’s harbor. In all cases, the U.S. response was simply to ignore the resolutions.

Animosity towards the organization became so intense that the United States withdrew from several UN agencies, charging that they were breeding grounds for U.S.-bashing and Third Worldism. About a billion dollars in U.S. dues to the UN also fell into arrears.

Built-in Weaknesses

While it is commendable that the UN attempted to hold the United States as accountable as every other country, Bennis’ treatment of the period of Third World ascendancy tends to exaggerate the capabilities of the organization.

As she herself admits, the General Assembly was limited to mostly symbolic resolutions since it lacks the mechanisms for enforcement. As much as the U.S. government may have disliked UN resolutions, the organization never really had the ability to either punish or stop U.S. acts of aggression.

These limitations illustrate the weakness and irony of multilateralism. Without the backing of the most powerful nation-state in the international system, multilateralism cannot evenly enforce international law. Symbolic resolutions aside, the reality was that the UN watched helplessly in the face of U.S. covert and military force in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Into the `90s

Dramatic changes in the organization would once again take place as the Cold War was ending. Iraq’s August, 1990 invasion of Kuwait was a flashpoint.

In an attempt to change domestic and international perceptions that believed the U.S. objections to the invasion were driven by oil interests, the first Bush administration forged a coalition of countries against Iraqi aggression. (Curiously enough, the U.S. had been condemned by the UN for its invasion of Panama just months before.)

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Bush Sr. proclaimed a new era of multilateral cooperation in which the UN would be critical for enforcing international law.(2)

Throughout the 1990s, internal conflicts erupted as former Cold War allies from either side struggled to stay in power. The new role of the UN would be tested in “peacekeeping” missions in these troubled areas.

As Bennis observed, the deployment of UN “peacekeeping” missions have been extremely selective. In the former situation, the United States hesitated in authorizing such missions in Rwanda and Bosnia (both were no less volatile than Somalia and Haiti). The United States sided with Israel in skirting UN resolutions that would have called for the return of deported Palestinians.

In Somalia, U.S. insistence on resolving the internal conflict by using offensive military force — a measure heavily disputed within the UN because it may be contrary to the organization’s charter — undermined humanitarian missions.

As in Somalia, U.S. military operations in Haiti went well beyond the defined boundaries established by the UN Charter. The United States and Britain also broadly interpreted UN resolutions on Iraq to maintain devastating sanctions and a decade of bombings and unauthorized “no-fly zone” over that country’s southern and northern areas.

The Clinton administration undermined the credibility of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq by using information they gathered to continue the bombing campaign. These steps fostered tensions between the inspectors and Iraq and finally led the UN to recall the inspectors in 1998.

Can Reforms Work?

Bennis shows well that ongoing tensions between the United States and the UN are substantive. Her findings belie the charge that the UN can simply be regarded as a tool of U.S. imperialism.

With equal force and skill, however, she also shows that Washington does indeed “call the shots” in the UN. It has backed the UN when it felt that it can forge a consensus, and pursued its own course of action when it cannot.

Calling the Shots leads us to a recurrent dilemma in multilateralism today: Without U.S. support, multilateralism is ineffective. But U.S. support for multilateralism has meant selective enforcement of international law and a predisposition towards military solutions.

The problem is made even worse when U.S. reliance on multilateralism has not produced the ends it sought. When the UN has failed to line up behind U.S. dictates, the United States has openly declared its right to act unilaterally.

This was brashly proclaimed by Madeline Albright (“We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must”), and affirmed when Colin Powell stated the U.S. right to attack Iraq even if the UN Security Council finds no basis for doing so.

What then is the solution? For all of the organization’s misgivings, Bennis believes that it is “all we have” and can be salvaged through reforms. Here Calling the Shots becomes far less convincing.

Bennis proposes that reform of the UN must focus on measures that place democracy, global disparities, and peaceful solutions to conflict on the agenda. While these objectives are noble, Bennis’ assertion that such an agenda could take shape in the UN is weak; the historical evidence she has offered demonstrates that the structural limitations of the organization and the global asymmetries in power and wealth are powerful obstacles.

In an important sense, Calling the Shots illustrates how the UN operates in a larger context of power and opens a discussion of whether the organization and the world we live in can be changed through mere institutional reform.

The flaw in Bennis’ proposed solutions is that she rests her hopes in confronting broad global problems, and inconsistencies in the enforcement of international law, by proposing a narrow framework for UN reform.

The UN may not be a mere tool of U.S. imperialism, but it has only had significance in international conflict when used in this manner. (Hence George W. Bush’s menacing statement that it will render itself “irrelevant” if it fails to play that role now.)

The history also suggests that real power resides not in international institutions but in the most powerful nation-states, which dictate what countries are subject to international law and what countries are not.

To date, both multilateralism and unilateralism have been means to secure a world of fundamental global inequalities and to reinforce U.S. imperial power. No discussion on reforming the UN can be complete unless we ask ourselves why and how Washington is able to call the shots in the first place.


  • From 1945 until the 1970s “China” meant Nationalist China, which after 1949 controlled only Taiwan. China took the seat after U.S. policy changed to recognizing Beijing. The Russian Federation inherited the Soviet Union’s Security Council seat after the latter state dissolved in 1991. The other ten seats on the 15-member Council are filled by rotation.
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  • [Bush’s speech of September 11, 1990 on this theme is discussed by Gilbert Achcar in his new book The Clash of Barbarisms. Sept. 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (Monthly Review Press, 2002), see Introduction, “From One September 11 to Another.” –ed.]
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  • ATC 103, March-April 2003