Committee reports are usually deadly dull, and UN committee reports are among the dullest. But the recent report of the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change broke that rule. Sixteen political leaders and former diplomats combined principle with political realism to produce the most comprehensive proposals for change since the UN was created in 1945.
Secretary General Kofi Annan is to present the report in March. Then it will be up to governments to act.
Many early comments have focused on the panel's recommendations for enlarging the Security Council from 15 to 24 members. The report proposed two alternatives. One would add six new permanent members - such as India, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Japan and Germany - as well as three two-year members. The other alternative would create eight semi-permanent members with renewable four-year terms and one additional member chosen for a two-year term.
Either proposal would entail amending the UN Charter, which requires marshaling the support of a two-thirds majority of the 191 member states, including the five veto-wielding members of the current Security Council. Skeptics doubt that this is feasible.
But focusing on enlargement of the Security Council risks diverting attention away from the rest of the panel's analyses and 101 recommendations for reform, many of which do not require amending the charter. According to the report, the General Assembly has lost vitality, the Security Council must be more proactive, the Commission on Human Rights suffers from a legitimacy deficit, the Secretariat should be more professional and better organized, and major institutional gaps hinder responses to economic and social threats to international security. The report is critical of the organization's performance on genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, as well as the late response to HIV-AIDS.
In the panel's words, the UN was created above all "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," but today the biggest security threats we face "go far beyond states waging aggressive war. The preoccupation of the UN founders was with state security. When they spoke of creating a new system of collective security they meant it in the traditional military sense."
Today the threats are from nonstate actors as well as states, and they jeopardize human security as well as that of states. Collective security nowadays means a broader sharing of responsibility for each other's security.
The panel dealt forthrightly with the new transnational threats posed by terrorists and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Its members agreed that there could be "nightmare scenarios" that combined the two and might require the preventive use of force. They urged strengthening the non-proliferation regime through more intrusive inspections, and negotiation of arrangements for internationally guaranteed access to nuclear enrichment and reprocessing services, rather than allowing countries to construct them for themselves.
They panel also backed U.S. President George W. Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative, aimed at stopping traffic in weapons of mass destruction. On terrorism, they broke the long UN impasse over finding a definition by condemning all attacks against civilians, and proposed a number of measures that member states should take.
Regarding the preventive use of force, traditional interpretations of Article 51 of the UN Charter (which provides a right of self-defense) allow a threatened state to take preemptive action in the face of imminent attack, but not to use force preventively against longer term threats. The panel would broaden that interpretation to allow the preventive use of force in some instances, but only if approved by the Security Council.
The Security Council would judge the legitimacy of such action by whether it met the age-old criteria of a just war: the seriousness of the threat, the purpose of the response, whether force is a last resort, whether it is used in a proportionate way, and whether there is a reasonable balance of good and bad consequences. In that sense, Bush won half his argument: Preventive force can be justified, but not unilaterally. Afghanistan would fit; Iraq would not.
Critics complained that this approach placed too much trust in a Security Council that could be paralyzed by politics and the use of the veto. Enlarging the council could make matters worse in this regard. A state threatened by terrorist attacks originating in another state might feel less patient than a majority of the council about what is the "last resort." In Rwanda and Kosovo the Security Council failed to act in time to save thousands of lives. Is there an alternative to waiting for the Security Council and acting unilaterally?
Kosovo and Iraq provide instructive examples. In the former, the prospect of a Security Council veto (by Russia) prevented action, and a regional organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, acted without UN authorization. Although this called the legality of the action into question, the intervention benefited from a widespread sense of political legitimacy that limited its negative effects on the international order.
In the case of the Iraq war, Bush never established a broad consensus that might have provided legitimacy in the face of a veto. Countries such as France and Germany that opposed action in Iraq were willing to use force in Kosovo despite the absence of Security Council authorization. If states feel compelled to act in the case of a council stalemate, they should know that they would do less damage to their reputations if they act within the panel's guidelines for legitimacy, even if they fail to satisfy its criterion for legality.
No single report can create a more secure world, but those who support that goal must hope that governments and their publics will consider seriously the UN panel's recommendations.
Joseph S. Nye is a distinguished service professor at Harvard University and author of "The Power Game: A Washington Novel." This commentary is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate